Government encourage local authorities to pause new additional and selective licensing schemes

Wednesday, April 1st, 2020 -

MHCLG COVID19 guidance for local housing authorities 2020

In response to COVID19, new government guidance is encouraging local authorities to pause all additional and selective licensing schemes not yet in force.

The guidance was published on 28 March 2020 as part of a wider package of guidance for landlords, tenants and local authorities. It reinforces the vital importance of local authorities, landlords and tenants working together to keep rented properties safe as part of the national effort to respond to the COVID19 outbreak.

The new guidance acknowledges that during the COVID19 outbreak it may be harder for local authorities to carry out their usual work. Inspecting properties and taking enforcement action may be affected by issues around resources or tenants maintaining strict separation. Landlords may also find it harder to comply with their legal obligations for the same reasons.

Local authorities are being advised to consider suspending all non-urgent proactive work such as scheduled targeted action and inspections of licensable properties. Instead, a triage system should be introduced to assess and prioritise tenant complaints, with support focused on the most vulnerable tenants, situations that pose an imminent risk to health and threats of harassment and illegal eviction.

The guidance acknowledges it might not be possible to inspect a property due to tenants self-isolating or refusing to allow access. In that scenario, it suggests an initial assessment could be made using photographs, video or live broadcasting by the tenant. Where inspections are essential, council officers are being advised to risk assess the situation and consider appropriate personal protective equipment.

Local authorities are being encouraged to contact landlords to emphasise the importance of keeping properties free from hazardous conditions, whilst also reassuring them that a pragmatic, risk-based and common-sense approach will be used when enforcement decisions are taken. London Boroughs are welcome to use the London Property Licensing website to share COVID19-related information with local landlords and agents.

Annual gas safety checks, etc

Whilst it remains a legal obligation to carry out annual gas safety checks via Gas Safe Registered engineer, the guidance acknowledges there could be unavoidable delays during the COVID19 outbreak. The government have advised that if a landlord can show they have taken all reasonable steps to comply with their duty under the regulations, they are not in breach of the duty.

The guidance suggests a landlord could show reasonable steps by keeping copies of all communications they have had with their tenants and with contractors as they tried to arrange the work, including any replies they have had. Landlords may also want to provide other evidence they have that the installation, appliance or flue is in a good condition while they attempt to arrange works. This could include the servicing record and previous landlord gas safety check record.

Landlords are being advised it should still be possible for inspectors and maintenance workers to visit common parts of blocks of flats and other multi-occupied properties for essential or urgent work such as inspecting and testing fire alarm and emergency lighting systems.

Impact on property licensing

In relation to mandatory HMO, additional and selective licensing schemes already in force, the government are encouraging local authorities to take a pragmatic and common sense approach to enforcement action.

The guidance acknowledges that there could be delays in landlords paying application fees, there are likely to be delays in processing licence applications and that local authorities should prioritise high-risk licensable properties that are occupied by vulnerable tenants and/or present an imminent risk to health.

In relation to additional and selective licensing schemes not yet in force, local authorities are being encouraged to pause the schemes at an appropriate point. This could be when the consultation has been completed and before a scheme designation is made, as it is unknown how long the COVID19 situation will continue.

The guidance does not explain what should happen if a local authority has recently made a scheme designation, the licensing scheme has not yet started but the scheme will come into force during the COVID19 outbreak.

This new government guidance follows the recent call by safeagent and London Property Licensing to delay new licensing schemes and review the situation in six months time (read here). Since then, Gateshead Council have delayed the start date of their new selective licensing scheme by six months. Islington Council have approved new additional and selective licensing schemes but are delaying a decision on when they will come into force.

Landlord and tenant guidance

The government have published useful guidance for landlords and tenants that works through a range of issues stemming from the COVID19 outbreak.

The government guidance stresses the vital importance of good communication between landlords and tenants at this difficult time. Issues covered include difficulties in paying the rent or mortgage and the suspension of housing possession cases in the courts.

In relation to repairs and maintenance, the guidance encourages tenants and landlords to take a pragmatic, common-sense approach to non-urgent issues which are affected by COVID19 related restrictions.

It advises against conducting viewings for new lettings and that access is restricted to serious and urgent issues only.

It recommends that tenants do allow access for urgent health and safety issues to be addressed, whilst observing sensible precautions to minimise the risk or viral spread.

This information is correct at time of publication, but the COVID19 situation is rapidly evolving. The guidance may be subject to change and can be viewed online here.

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