How Wales deals with criminal landlords (clue: it’s not the same as England)

By Jennie Bibbings

This week’s news highlighted the gaping loopholes in English law that allow criminal ‘rogue’ landlords to continue to operate even after being banned.

Most of the coverage lumped England and Wales together – leading to much tweeting and use of the #thatsdevolved hashtag – and ignored the progress that we’ve made towards professionalising the Welsh private rented sector.

While England has a criminal landlord database devoid of any landlords’ names after six months in operation, Wales has the Rent Smart Wales licensing scheme. Rent Smart Wales means that every landlord and letting agent must register, pass a fit and proper person test, and undertake basic training.

If you don’t register it’s a criminal offence with hefty penalties including rent repayment orders, rent stopping orders, losing the power to evict tenants, and ultimately losing the ability to operate as a landlord or agent.

It’s been encouraging to see the effort that’s gone into prosecuting unlicensed landlords: 44 successful prosecutions so far, and nearly 400 fixed penalties. Landlords have faced fines of up to £11,000 for a range of offences. And 31 licences have been refused or revoked because the landlord has failed the fit and proper person test.

But does this mean that Wales doesn’t have the same problem of criminal landlords continuing to operate despite being banned?

Sadly, it doesn’t.

Although the vast majority of privately rented homes are now registered and known to Rent Smart Wales, there are still an estimated 10,000 homes – about five per cent of the sector – whose landlords are still to comply.

At Shelter Cymru we encounter unlicensed landlords and agents every day in our casework. This has included landlords who would be very unlikely to pass a fit and proper person test. Rent Smart Wales are actively pursuing landlords like these.

Given their performance to date, and the vast range of penalties at their disposal, there shouldn’t be any doubt that Rent Smart Wales is going to eventually force persistently non-compliant landlords out of business.

Let’s not forget, though, that failing to register with Rent Smart Wales is only one of many ways in which some landlords break the law.

Private rented problems make up around a third of our casework. It’s a daily horror show of dangerously bad conditions, harassment, and illegal evictions – and frustratingly, people’s access to redress is nowhere near strong enough.

Often we find that Environmental Health doesn’t have the capacity to get involved. And many tenants don’t feel they can push for repairs because of the risk of a no-fault ‘revenge’ eviction and the high cost of moving home.

Often their only option is to look for somewhere else to live. Once they’ve moved on, it might be possible for them to sue their previous landlord for damages.

Obviously this route is only available to tenants with some resources behind them and the confidence to push their case via the courts. It doesn’t happen often. Most people just cut their losses and move on.

There’s hardly any enforcement on illegal evictions. The local authority says it’s a police matter, the police say it’s a local authority matter, and so the only option for tenants is to apply for an injunction to get back in the home, at least for long enough to pack up and make a planned move.

Even when an injunction has been obtained, getting redress through the courts is extremely complicated and rarely happens in practice.

This is why we want to see Rent Smart Wales continue to grow and develop into a comprehensive system of regulation that can bring our clients the redress they deserve.

Enforcement shouldn’t just be about whether landlords and agents are licensed – it should address the whole range of bad practice that people seek our help with.

As Rent Smart Wales enters its fourth year of operation it’s time to think big about the scheme’s potential to make a real difference to the lives of Wales’s half a million private renters.