Safe as houses?

Blog post

Safe as houses?

With crime changing and the police under unprecedented pressure, we know that they cannot tackle crime on their own. So much of what presents itself at the police station is a consequence of wider social failure. But until now we haven’t understood the impact of under-regulated and poor quality private rented housing on crime.

New research from the Police Foundation suggests that conditions in the private rented sector (PRS) are exposing tenants to an increased risk of crime. In Luton, where the PRS doubled between the last two Censuses, neighbourhoods with greater concentrations of private renting were found to have higher burglary rates, (and this remained the case when factors such as unemployment and deprivation were taken into account). Taken with other findings, this indicated that inadequate household security in the local rental sector (where high demand and low regulation provide little incentive for landlords to make improvements) was an important (and potentially fixable) driver of burglary. Additionally, high-burglary neighbourhoods tended to be places of ethnic diversity, transience and rapid population growth; suggesting that disparate, churning tenant population (and others who live alongside them) may be unable to develop the community resilience to resist criminal predation.

In Slough, another town where the PRS has grown markedly, 40 per cent of non-domestic violence (that is violence that does not involve spouses / partners or family members) was found to take place inside private dwellings. In one part of town this indoor violence was disproportionately linked with the proliferation of Houses in Multiple Occupation (HMOs), suggesting that the stress and insecurity of living in crowded, shared accommodation, with no choice of co-habitees, was increasing the risk of violent crimes occurring.

Although the PRS is expanding and increasingly providing homes for some of the most vulnerable, little has been done to protect tenants from crime. While the Housing Act 2004, the last government’s Tenant’s Charter and various self-regulation schemes cover things like gas and electrical safety, next to no attention is given to protection against intruders or the social composition of shared dwellings. In many areas the lack of regulatory levers is compounded by a woeful lack of resource for inspection and enforcement.

So, what can be done? Local police need to work with local authorities to understand social change on their patch, how this relates to the patterns of victimisation they see every day and how they can intervene to alter the conditions that lead to crime, harm and demand. Too often, as resources have contracted, capacity for strategic understanding and action has also diminished.

Local authorities need new tools. PRS licensing schemes have the potential to provide options, yet the obstacles to introducing them are substantial and were increased at the end of the last parliament. A National Register of Landlords and greater freedom for local authorities to implement tailored licensing would empower local practitioners. A government consultation paper hints at movement in the right direct; with the Housing Bill due in the autumn, and as evidence emerges on the range of harms associated with poor standards in the sector, we monitor closely whether the government’s response goes far enough.

Safe as Houses? Crime and changing tenure patterns by Andy Higgins and Roger Jarman is published on 20 August 2015 as part of the Police Foundation’s Police Effectiveness in a Changing World project.

Andy Higgins, Senior Analyst, the Police Foundation