The Looming Energy Crisis of the Private Rental Sector

As rental prices hit an all time high, on average costing £800 per month and with ever inflating energy bills, has there ever been a worse time to be a tenant as we head towards autumn and winter?

Landlords have particular legal responsibilities for duration of a tenancy agreement – they are legally required to hold your deposit using the DPS (deposit protection service) and they have responsibility over certain repairs and maintenance. According to Shelter, the landlord’s responsibilities broadly cover; the roof, chimneys, walls, guttering, drains and also for keeping the supply of water, gas and electricity in ‘safe working order’.

The one area landlords do not have any responsibility over is energy efficiency – and this is a huge oversight for two reasons. In the first instance – a private rental property that is, let’s say, of ‘a certain age’ will have single-glazed windows, with wooden or steel frames that are layered with decades of paint which means they can no longer close properly. The walls and roof are not insulated to a degree even approaching ‘modern’ building standards. The boiler is old and inefficient. The radiators are too small for the rooms. The house must literally burn its own weight in fuel to barely stave off sub-zero winter temperatures. Who is responsible for paying the heating bill? The tenant. What impetus is there for the landlord to change the windows, insulation or central heating system? None.

There is a huge cognitive gap between building regulations for new homes and homes that are available for private rental – private landlords are not held responsible for the energy efficiency of their properties, but new house builders are. Considering landlords have a continuing commitment over long period of time, this seems incongruous.

The tenant is between a rock and a hard-place. With the cost of mortgages unaffordable, especially for single people and low-income families, it is the lower-income demographic that is left footing over-inflated fuel costs due to energy inefficient rental properties.

With consecutive harsh winters over the last few years, an upward trend in excess winter deaths and rising fuel bills, this problem is only going to get worse. There are schemes available to help landlords make properties more energy efficient – facilitated by organisations such as the Energy Saving Trust – but for now, whilst landlords have no legal responsibility to make these improvements, it boggles the mind as to why any landlord would choose to invest in fuel efficiencies when huge fuel bills are exclusively the responsibility of tenants.

Tenants are being punished with large fuel bills because they cannot afford a mortgage. Standard energy efficiency information is provided with property ‘details’ when buying a property, but not when renting. To make energy efficiency ratings mandatory for all rental properties would be a first step towards letting tenants know what they are ‘letting themselves in for’ before they sign a lease. With the government throwing its full weight behind their new ‘help to buy’ scheme, they are somewhat missing the point. At a time when more and more people are renting, more attention must be focused on helping people in rented accommodation.

I said there were two oversights – the second being a complete disregard for climate change. If we can actively encourage landlords to make properties more energy efficient, then we can continue to reduce carbon emissions. Government policy – as laid out in the Climate Change Act 2008 – states an objective to achieve a 34% cut in greenhouse gas emissions by 2020 and an 80% cut by 2050. With 3.8 million rental properties in the UK and no specific legislation to push landlords towards energy efficiencies, reaching the targets as set out in the Climate Change Act will be, I fear, extremely difficult.

The government report Great Britain’s housing energy fact file 2011 doesn’t note any desire for increased responsibility from private landlords’ going forwards, but it does note that we consume more energy in our homes than we do in the whole of the transport system and the whole of industry in the UK. To make a move towards legislating on energy efficiencies in the private rental sector would, firstly, help tenants stay warm and reduce crippling fuel costs and it would also help the government to reach the targets in the Climate Change Act.

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Categories: Global Political Insight

Author:Chris Lee

Chris Lee is a British local politician. He attained his BA (Hons) in English, Drama & Theatre Studies from Royal Holloway University of London before completing his postgraduate MSc. in Democracy & Comparative Politics at University College London. Chris spent two years working in accounting and finance and later as a freelance tutor and facilitator. In addition to teaching, Chris is an active member of the Labour Party – currently co-ordinating a number of by-election campaigns. He has recently completed his postgraduate dissertation - a comparative case study that identified key factors of the member/officer policy-making relationship in English local government.

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