Guest blog post by Jade Hunt.
After finishing my second-year summer exams, I was keen to start my new position within Essex Law Clinic as the Housing Law Frontrunner plus. I am already familiar with the Clinic, having volunteered as a case worker during term time. However, for this role, I will be meeting clients who require legal advice around various housing issues, such as disrepair and homelessness.
During one of my first days in the position, I attended the Legal Action Group (LAG) annual conference in London, which focused specially on Housing Law. I was enthusiastic but, if I’m honest, slightly apprehensive, as I am no expert in this rather extensive field of law, but I knew this would be a fantastic opportunity to enhance my knowledge.
It was clear from the outset that the room was filled with professionals who are at the forefront of tackling the immense amount of legal housing problems that affect the country, and my apprehension soon turned into admiration.
The conference opened with an inspirational talk on ‘The Politics of Housing’ from the Labour MP for Westminster North, Karen Buck. Karen talked the room through a brief history in the ‘life ‘of housing law in Britain, starting from the Housing of Working Classes Act 1885 pioneered by Lord Salisbury, moving to the Beveridge ‘5 giant’ report in which he discussed the fundamental pillars of the welfare state. Karen said that there are three key elements of housing which are decency, affordability and security. She then went on to discuss how privatisation had caused over 90% of social housing to disappear by 2010. A figure only worsened by the growth of Government ‘Right to buy scheme, which resulted in 45% of social housing being sold off by 2017. By the end of Karen’s talk, her message was very clear, social housing must not be taken out of politics. It must be one of the topics at the forefront of Parliament’s agenda.
The conference went on to host many more expert speakers such as Giles Peaker and Catherine O’Donnnell. Giles discussed the relatively new piece of legislation, the Homes (Fitness for Human Habitation) Act 2018, which came into force in March 2019, and exemplified to what extent and how the Act may be relied upon by tenants and additionally, what obligations fell upon landlords.
In the afternoon, the conference hosted Liz Davies, Paul Ridge, Justin Bates who used their timeslot to discuss some of the legal ramifications of the fire which occurred on 14 June 2017, at Grenfell Tower and tragically resulted in 72 deaths.
It was rather shocking to learn that since the Grenfell, of the 164 privately owned “high rise” blocks, that are known to have ACM cladding, there are still 70 that have absolutely no plans in place for improvement work. Out of 158 social tower blocks that have ACM cladding, 102 have been left unaltered still two years later.
Justin summarised that there are regulatory problems that are very difficult to solve. The laws that should be in place to protect tenants and homeowners in these buildings will fail to bite effectively. The Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005, for example, which can be enforced by the fire brigade, suffers from a rather obscure definition of ‘common parts’ which can be interpreted as areas ‘used in common’ therefore, it could be argued, would not include the ACM cladding or flammable wooden cladding.
The Government have made plans to ‘lend’ £200 million. This loan is frustratingly limited to pay for the replacement of ACM cladding only and for buildings above 18 metre but will not be available until the end of the summer. With the passing of the two-year anniversary of Grenfell just weeks behind us, and no concrete plans or much progression evident, it is apparent that there is still a long way to go.
Jamie Burton ended the day with a thought-provoking talk titled ‘Should we have the enshrined right to housing?’ during which he listed 7 reasons why this right should be incorporated as a fundamental human right in the UK. These were security of tenure, necessary amenities, affordability, habitability, appropriate location, accessibility and culturally appropriate. I agree with Jamie that having a safe and affordable home in which you feel secure from the threat of eviction should be a basic right.
I would highly recommend attending a LAG conference to any law student. It offered me a great insight into how the law was or was not able to be used in practice. It was a good place to meet likeminded people and to network with legal professionals that you might not otherwise encounter. It also gave me some good ideas for my Capstone Final Year Project.