Bishop of Rochester supports Bill to improve fitness of homes for human habitation

On 23rd November 2018 the House of Lords considered a Private member’s Bill from Lord Best, the ‘Homes (Fitness for Human Habitation) Bill’. The Bishop of Rochester, Rt Revd James Langstaff, spoke in its support:

The Lord Bishop of Rochester: My Lords, I too am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Best, for his advocacy of this Bill in your Lordships’ House and for his customary detailed and lucid comments in introducing the debate. I also salute the indefatigable work of the Member for Westminster North, who has already been referred to, and look forward to what we all hope will be a positive response to this debate from the Minister.

Like many others, I am very supportive of any efforts to improve and assure the quality of accommodation in the rental sector, whether that be individual, corporate or social landlords. I did, however, have a slight moment of hesitation about speaking on this, as I became conscious that the Church of England, in its various national and local corporate guises, is a not inconsiderable landlord.

Clergy housing is often let short term during parish vacancies; these are the properties of the parishes and dioceses, and are let to provide income. Rather akin to the agricultural workers referred to in the Bill, there are some 7,000 or more clergy who receive housing as part of their remuneration, and are thus in a quasi-tenant relationship with Church corporate bodies. They are, I think and hope, not in need of the provisions in this Bill because, in perhaps an extremely rare instance of the Church being ahead of the game, the Repair of Benefice Buildings Measure 1972 laid on diocesan authorities a duty not unlike that in this Bill, and was reaffirmed by the Ecclesiastical Offices (Terms of Service) Measure 2009. That said, I fear that there may be instances where Church authorities and Church-related bodies could do better. I welcome the fact that this Bill will, as I understand it, apply to those corporate bodies when they let residential properties to tenants other than the clergy. If those bodies are not already ensuring that their let properties are of the best possible standard, this Bill will help to make sure that they do.

More generally, I welcome the provisions of this Bill that make clear the implied covenant within a tenancy and those which seek to clarify and extend the definition of “fitness for human habitation”. Reference has also been made to the right of tenants to take action, not being dependent on local authorities to do so. That is an important provision, though I will refer to a slight proviso around that.

Clearly, as has already been indicated, not least by the noble Baroness, this will bring no added burden for those landlords who already make this a priority and operate in the best possible way. Indeed, the safeguards built into the Bill relating to those matters which are not a landlord’s responsibility also help to clarify this and, I hope, reassure landlords.

An anecdote of good practice by a landlord came to me unexpectedly on my journey here this morning. My train was, for reasons I do not yet understand, curtailed at Denmark Hill and never reached Victoria, so I shared a taxi with a gentlemen who, when he discovered I was to speak in this debate, told me how he sought rental accommodation for his son, who was having a year out from university on a work placement and needed to find accommodation. He told me of taking over the tenancy of a flat, and it being very clear that the landlord and his entire family had spent most of the night before cleaning and redecorating the property to hand it over in an absolutely immaculate condition. We know that many landlords operate in that particular way; our concern is those who do not.

Noble Lords will be aware that we have to legislate for those who do not act in the best way for the common good and for the good of human kind. Many of us will be aware of instances where standards of rental accommodation fall below what is right and proper in a society such as ours. Sadly, that may particularly apply to housing which accommodates those among the most vulnerable in our society—those whose desperation, or lack of alternatives, mean that they take whatever they can, even if it is unfit. As Bishop to Her Majesty’s Prisons, I have a particular concern about those who have been released at the end of a custodial sentence. The provision of housing for them is a particular challenge in our society. They are among those who often end up in housing which is frankly appalling, but it is all that is available.

Even in the student sector, one still hears tales about overcrowding and below-standard accommodation. The noble Lord, Lord Best, referred to properties with mould, which affects people’s health and well-being. Without naming names, as a former board member of housing associations over some 30 years, I have in the past visited housing association properties which have been infested by mould. That is not how it should have been. For myself and my fellow board members, I hope we took that seriously and did something about it.

The empowerment of tenants to take action, with a clear right to do so if this Bill passes, is an important area already referred to. We are in an economic situation where we find real financial pressures on institutions such as community law centres, and where, thank goodness, many lawyers still offer pro bono services. If tenants—particularly vulnerable tenants—are to be able to make use of the provisions here, then we need to look at that whole area. I know this lies outside the scope of this Bill, and the noble Lord, Lord Horam, has already referred to it—I was intrigued by his comments about taxation and welcome them—but this is an area that needs to be looked at if people are to be able to exercise the rights given to them under this Bill.

The place where we live is one of the key contributors to human well-being or, in some instances sadly, the lack of it. For all to have the realistic prospect of a decent home is surely not beyond us in this society. The Bill, albeit limited in scope as others have mentioned, will make a valuable contribution to that in a particular sector of housing provision, and I welcome it.