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Poverty warning for Scots hit by increased household bills

by Emily Rice, CAS Energy policy officer.

NB This column was published in the Herald newspaper on 15 April 2020.

THE Covid-19 pandemic risks causing a poverty crisis as well as a health crisis. Our data indicates that, with uncertainty over furloughs and social security entitlements, many people are worried about how they will pay their bills.

There is one group who face a particular challenge: tenants in the private rented sector are being hit by a double whammy of high rents and soaring energy bills – made worse by the stay-at-home order, which means they are using more energy than usual.

Rents are rising faster than inflation across most of Scotland. If you’re a renter, that’s worrying enough. But consider too that private sector tenants are more likely to live in homes that are difficult to heat. Therefore they have a higher than average chance of living in fuel poverty.

The Scottish Government is introducing minimum energy efficiency standards for private rented properties. Though the deadline for these has been pushed back due to the pandemic, these standards will be a good starting point for improving the overall quality of Scottish housing, creating warm, comfortable homes and reducing both fuel poverty and carbon emissions.

The majority of landlords in Scotland only rent out one property and are committed to its upkeep and to the welfare of their tenants. However, levels of disrepair and energy inefficiency in private rented homes are higher than average.

In a 2014 survey UK landlords were asked why they would not make improvements to their property, and 47% reported that ‘tenants seem perfectly happy with the energy efficiency of their home.’ This may indicate a misunderstanding or miscommunication between tenants and landlords. But it is informative. In our experience as an advice agency, many tenants feel unable to request improvements, and when they do they are met with resistance from their landlord. Even where the work is agreed it can take a long time before it is carried out.

Turning a profit shouldn’t prevent landlords from meeting decent quality and safety standards. You wouldn’t expect a plumber to leave you with leaky pipes.

Nor should landlords rent out leaky homes that waste energy, leaving tenants literally in the cold while shelling out on gas and electricity they’ll barely benefit from.

For tenants, the property they occupy is their home and they have a right for it to meet the tolerable standard, meaning it meets a certain level of repair.

Included in this is that the home should be wind and water-tight, insulated to a degree, and have an acceptable level of ventilation and heating.

In return, tenants should be responsible stewards of the property, and landlords can help facilitate this by communicating early and regularly to make sure everyone understands their responsibilities and their rights. Such engagement is especially key with young people. More young people are moving into the private rented sector and staying longer, as saving for a deposit becomes harder and social housing waiting lists are long.

This is evident in the cases CAB advisers see as well; people seeking advice about the private rented sector are more likely to be younger than the average CAB client. They tend to be less aware of their rights as tenants and less confident about asking their landlord for repairs or improvements.

A survey we conducted last year found that 79% of Scottish adult renters supported a minimum energy efficiency standard.

Research by Citizens Advice in England and Wales has found that even when accompanied by proportionate rent increases, energy efficiency upgrades brought net benefits for private rented tenants.

New windows or draught-proofing may seem to a landlord like an unnecessary request that doesn’t need to be dealt with urgently, but for tenants simple measures like that can make a big difference.

In extreme cases, they can help tenants save hundreds of pounds on fuel bills. They also increase the value of the property for the landlord, and help Scotland meet its climate change targets.

To ensure the best outcomes for everyone, there needs to be a partnership between landlords and tenants. Private landlords with a small portfolio or single property should help their tenants with new heating systems and controls, both at hand-over and throughout the tenancy.

Letting agencies should have a dedicated member of staff to help tenants understand their heating systems and fuel meter. Upgrading the energy efficiency of a home can not only save money on bills, it can have knock-on effects of improving health, saving the NHS money every year, and making tenants more conscientious of the ways they use energy.

A warm, dry, energy-efficient home that is affordable to heat should be the standard in Scotland, not a privilege. The private rented sector has an exciting role to play in achieving that.

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