By Holly Bancroft
Many readers may not have noticed the council’s latest scheme to further regulate and improve the standard of student housing. This is being seen as a constructive step towards better conditions and greater accountability.
As students we are continually impacted by housing standards and although it has lacked publicity the scheme aims to give students a better guide when choosing between estate agents.
So what is the scheme? The Durham Student Assured Housing Scheme is a voluntary code that will initially run from 2015 to 2018 to which landlords can sign up to have their student housing accredited.
Being accredited means each property, that’s the key part here, every single property, will have to meet the council’s new standards. The scheme comes at a price of £180 including VAT for each property.
However if the property already has a HMO licence (a national mandatory license for houses of three or more storeys occupied by five or more persons) accreditation will only cost £30.
So far the scheme seems to be an improvement on existing regulation, but although it has had a reasonable uptake, with over 100 landlords, there is still more work to be done to get Durham landlords to fully commit to it.
Peter Smith from Bill Free Homes spoke to the Palatinate on the issue and mentioned that the consultation period for the Durham Student Assured Housing Scheme took so long that their estate agents decided to revert to a national scheme instead, adding that the standards required by the council scheme are very similar to that of the national scheme.
This national scheme, the AFS Unipol code, involves certification once every three years and an inspection rate of 1 in 3 houses for landlords with under 10 properties.
On the whole Bills Free Homes, like most of Durham’s landlords, seem to welcome the scheme seeing the increased regulation as “a very good thing” and saying that “standards needed to be brought up”.
Durham housing seems to be becoming safer with gas certification, for example, having been a legal requirement for some time. However there is a danger that because this new council scheme is still in its trial stages and is still voluntary, that landlords may be inclined to forget about it until tougher legislation is put in place.
Peter Smith of Bill Free Homes commented that “it is possible that some smaller landlords have difficulty in keeping up with legislative changes and may prefer to operate outside of the scheme or any other accreditation scheme such as Unipol”.
The questions remaining are whether national mandatory licensing is needed to regulate the sector and if so how long it will be until there is government consultation on making licensing a legal requirement.
However there are fears that national regulation could lead to less thorough checks on housing. The unique feature of the Durham Student Housing Assurance Scheme is that every single house is checked before it can be accredited.
This differs from less localised initiatives which rely on spot-checking around 1 in 10 houses. The 100% check on houses is one of the reasons that Douglas McCaroll from letting agents Morgan Douglas, when speaking to the Palatinate, called Durham council’s scheme “definitely a positive thing”.
This is in-line with the Council’s own view of the scheme as “confident that [it] will help to raise both housing standards and management practices” with a number of property improvements already being carried out.
To some landlords however this extra accreditation system is not necessary if they are already sufficiently covered by past schemes. For example, Universal Student Living for example is covered by the National Code of assured accommodation.
Evenmore Properties, when speaking to Palatinate, commented that they already feel their properties are well regulated. They added that they have not put it as a priority because the scheme has not been fully explained by the council and is not yet obligatory.
They said that they were primarily focussing on the business of letting student property and would be happy to engage with the legislation if in a few years it became mandatory.
Although the cost of £180, or £30 if you are covered by the HMO licence, is not particularly expensive, the cost of making the changes needed to qualify for an assured status is potentially much higher.
If the scheme does become a mandatory thing then as Bill Free Homes have said it “will require landlords to up their game”. Although this is certainly the case, Mrs J Normanton, an independent student landlord, points out that from the student’s point of view the market has become a lot more open.
Previously students could use the university’s code of standards and rent houses through the university to be assured of safe standards but the code was done away with this year.
This new council scheme is given no preference over other similar accreditation services through the university.
However Professor Graham Towl, Pro-Vice-Chancellor and Deputy Warden told the Palatinate, “it is important that our students have a very positive university experience: living conditions are obviously a key part of this and we therefore support the Durham Student Housing Assured Scheme introduced by Durham County Council. At the outset, we worked in partnership with the council and provided input to help design the process.”
Joanne Waller, the Council’s head of environment, health and consumer protection, commented that, “The scheme’s benefits are increasingly being seen by landlords and managing agents as far outweighing the relatively small application fee. It is hoped that, from year to year, all students will look for assured properties when house hunting.”
Therefore although the scheme seems to be a great step towards increasingly thorough regulation of student housing it is more than ever up to the students to make themselves aware of what different letting agents have to offer and to compare standards.
Image: Venus Loi