Industry news

Single housing ombudsman closer to becoming a reality

The Government is looking at establishing a single ombudsman service to improve consumer rights of redress across all parts of the housing sector. A consultation exercise is taking place early in the

New Year to assess the current systems and seek views from experts and the public on how access to redress for consumers could be improved. This could result in the creation of a single body to investigate and deal with complaints from tenants (both private and social), leaseholders, owners and buyers of new homes. Communities Secretary Sajid Javid described the

existing mechanisms of redress in the housing sector as “confusing and unco-ordinated”. There are currently four different bodies that can deal with complaints: the Housing Ombudsman, the Property Ombudsman, Ombudsman Services: Property and the Property Redress scheme. In addition the Charity Commission deals with charitable bodies like the National Trust who own and let properties. But even this combination of overlapping schemes

fails to provide full coverage of the potential issues that people might encounter, he explained. While membership of the Housing Ombudsman scheme is compulsory for all social landlords, private landlords do not have to be part of a scheme.

BARRIERS Mr Javid said getting cases considered takes too long and there are all kinds of barriers to doing so. Announcing his planned consultation, he said “This could help drive up standards across the whole industry and increase protections for consumers.” “We’re also going to be consulting on reforms of the

leasehold market to tackle abuses there and launching a call for evidence on regulation of property agents. Abuse of the leasehold system is rife, yet leaseholders and tenants can find it almost impossible to get their complaints heard and acted on.” Mr Javid added “Research in other sectors has

shown that redress works more efficiently for consumers when there’s a single ombudsman in place. So, in the new year, we’re going to consult on this and see whether it’s right for the housing sector too.” It is thought that reports of complaints from

Grenfell Tower residents over safety issues at the tower block being ignored or not acted upon may have prompted Mr Javid to act. Tenants of the tower block were tenants of

Kensington and Chelsea Council although management of the block had been contracted out to a tenant management organisation, which was also an ALMO. The Homes & Communities Agency said they had no powers to investigate tenant complaints at Grenfell as neither the council, nor the TMO or ALMO came under its jurisdiction. Tenants have subsequently complained that no-one was interested in listening to them.

Empty homes council tax rise unlikely to deter rich owners, say critics

joke by critics, who say it will have little effect on the wealthy who own expensive properties across the UK. There are over 200,000 homes in the UK that


have been empty for more than six months. Parts of the capital city and beautiful locations in the country and by the seaside (like the West Country, East Anglia and the Lake District) are particularly popular locations for both second or holiday homes, as well as investment properties to hedge against financial risks. These areas are very different from the urban

centres suffering from low demand and poor property conditions that has also resulted in large numbers of empty properties in some cities. Places like Liverpool and Stoke have sought to tackle this by selling some houses for as little as £1 to buyers, on condition that they renovate the properties and bring them back into use. Official figures show that the west London

borough of Kensington & Chelsea has 1,652 empty homes, with more than 600 of them empty for more than two years. While it is undoubtedly the case that some of these are empty for perfectly legitimate reasons, it is also the case that many are in the ‘Buy to leave empty’ category with property inflation outstripping the general inflation rate.

PUNISH Philip Hammond announced in the Budget that councils would be able to charge 100 per cent extra council tax on properties that have been empty for two or more years, up from the current limit of 50 per cent. “It can’t be right to leave property empty when so many are desperate for a place to live,” the Chancellor said. We probably won’t see the impact of the

council tax change in the empty homes figures for about 12 months, but Paul Sweeney, the Labour MP for Glasgow North East, was quick to criticise the change, labelling it inadequate and too small. “We need to have a punitive rate above normal council tax to actually incentivise the reuse of empty properties,” Sweeney said on Twitter. “What a joke.” Helen Williams, Chief Executive of the

Empty Homes agency, said the increase would not deter those buying properties as an

8 | HMM January 2018 |

he Chancellor’s plan to tackle the housing crisis by increasing council tax on empty homes has been labelled a

investment. “For a very wealthy buyer spending millions of pounds, 100 per cent council tax is not really enough of a disincentive,” she said. It would be more helpful if the Government carried out a review into why overseas buyers kept their properties empty, she added. Jeremy Corbyn, Labour’s leader, said: “We

need a large-scale publicly funded house building programme, not this government’s accounting tricks and empty promises.”

COUNCILLOR LANDLORDS Meanwhile, an investigation by The Guardian newspaper found that in some areas the empty homes phenomenom was being fuelled by local councillors, with hundreds of councillors owning multiple properties which they either let out privately, or they use as holiday homes. The paper reported that in Torbay, 39 per

cent of councillors own multiple properties, including one who has received more than £63,000 in housing benefit payments for tenants in the last two years. Three Conservative councillors in the south coast authority are said to own a combined 68 residential properties. In Bournemouth, 15 of the 37 councillors hold multiple property interests, while in Labour- controlled Leeds, 26 of the 99 councillors own more than one property in the city. Other councils where more than a quarter of

councillors are landlords are Conservative- controlled Forest Heath in Suffolk, Liberal Democrat-controlled Eastbourne and Labour- controlled Waltham Forest in London. The Guardian says it has identified a link

between those areas with high numbers of councillors owning two or more properties, and councils that have failed to introduce registration and licensing schemes of the private rented sector.

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