Who lives in a dangerous home?

28 May 2013

"Thousands suffer in 'non-decent' homes."

Independent, 28 May 2013

This week the Labour party released new figures which purportedly showed the extent of 'non-decent' living in the UK's private rental sector.

Reported in the Independent, the party claimed half a million families and over 100,000 pensioners are living in "potentially dangerous or seriously sub-standard rented homes", alongside its new policy review on the private rented sector.

So how widespread is this problem?

Is my home 'decent'?

Obviously everyone has a different opinion on what counts as a 'decent' place to live, but the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) standardise this with their own definition.

Basically, for your home to be decent it needs to:

1) Meet the legal minimum housing standards:

This means a dwelling needs to be free of 'category 1 hazards'. A local authority can send an inspection officer to a property and assess any hazards according to the Housing Health and Safety Rating System. Category 1 hazards are simply the most serious hazards that are likely to cause harm or threaten life, as judged by a housing officer.

The rest are largely down to the opinion of an inspector obeying the guidelines:

2) Be in a 'reasonable' state of repair: based on how many parts of the house structure are old and in need of major repair or replacement.

3) Have 'reasonably' modern facilities: such as a kitchen no older than 20 years, a bathroom no older than 30, good locations and layout for both or good noise insulation.

4) Provide a 'reasonable' amount of heating: mainly based on the presence of central heating or storage heaters, etc.

Who's suffering?

The figures themselves aren't easy to find: while the English Housing Survey (EHS) publishes statistics on 'decent homes', and breaks this down into the type of tenue (owner-occupiers, private renters, social renters etc), it doesn't say anything about pensioners or families.

To go further, we need to apply the overall demographic characteristics of the EHS to the figures for home decency. This tells us that there are 311,000 over 65s who rent privately, and 1.3 million households with children who do the same.

Given that 35% of private renterd dwellings are non-decent (as shown in the graph above), applying this crudely yields the 457,000 'families' and 109,000 'pensioners'.

What we don't know, unfortunately, is whether there's any variation between different types of family and the quality of homes they occupy. We've asked the researchers behind the English Housing Survey if there's any data to this effect and will update when we know more.

What is relevant to point out though is that this problem isn't getting any worse, at the very least. In 2006 almost half (47%) of private rented homes failed the decency test, but it's since fallen every year to 35% today.

Missed targets

While the trends are encouraging, recent history has seen a series of missed targets. For social housing, the previous Government set the target in 2000 that all social homes and 70% of private sector vulnerable households (those claiming means-tested or disability benefits) would be decent by 2010. However in 2006 the DCLG backtracked on part of this:

"The Department expects 95 per cent of all social housing to be decent by 2010 and the remainder to be improved as fast as possible after that date."

By 2008, the target looked even less certain:

"...we still expect that the vast majority of social landlords will ensure all homes are decent by 2010 and that overall 95 per cent of all social sector homes will be decent by this date. But there are continued risks to the achievement of 95 per cent decency."

Then the DCLG told the Communities and Local Government Committee in 2010 that:

"We estimate that by [the end of 2010] around 92 per cent will be decent."

The 70% target also went awry by 2007, according to the National Audit Office, after the Housing Health and Safety Rating System first came into effect.

The latest figures show that, using figures compiled from Landlords' returns (as opposed to the Housing Survey), by April 2012 93.6% of social homes were decent.


Labour's figures check out as far as the published statistics allow us to go, and the evidence does show the private rented sector is the main source of non-decent homes. However this doesn't necessarily mean that the reason these homes are substandard is because they're private rented.

For instance, there's a strong correlation between the age of a property and its decency - as we might expect. Almost half (48%) of dwellings built before 1919 are non-decent, compared to just 3.2% of those built post 1990. DCLG figures show that private rented homes tend to be older than other tenures - as of 2009 40% of all private rented homes were built before 1919 - far more than for any other tenure type.

So it isn't necessarily the case that 'dodgy' landlords overseeing poor housing standards are peculiar to the private rental sector, as part of the problem could simply be attributed to differences in the housing stock. The numbers alone aren't enough to conclude either way. At the very least, they do show that decency is heading in the right direction.

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