Northern Ireland’s Certificates of Fitness

As readers may know, legal housing standards and interventions vary across the UK. England and Wales have the Housing Health and Safety Rating System and Scotland has the Tolerable Standard. Each has its own arrangements for public health.

This very interesting blog from Lindsay Shaw, Lecturer in Environmental Health, Ulster University, outlines Northern Ireland’s Certificates of Fitness and proposals for change.

In Northern Ireland  (NI) the requirement for privately rented properties built before 1945 to have a Certificate of Fitness was introduced in 2007 as part of a framework to replace outdated legislation and improve the management and operation of an increasingly growing private rented sector (PRS). It aimed to proactively identify properties that were unsuitable for habitation or in serious disrepair and provided an active means to protect the health, safety and well-being of tenants.

By the early 2000’s and with a growing PRS in NI (in common with the rest of the UK), it was becoming more evident that the legislation for the PRS in NI was outdated and making no contribution to the Department’s aim of creating a viable PRS. The Rent (NI) Order 1978 was cumbersome, focusing on rent control and tenancy rights of an ever-diminishing controlled sector. Most properties in the PRS were in the uncontrolled sector with minimal legislative interventions. Limited remedies under statutory nuisance was by default the main route to address unsatisfactory housing conditions encountered by local authorities. Tenants were often faced with the prospect of costly private legal action to ensure landlords addressed unfitness and disrepair.

The NI House Condition Surveys (NIHCS) were essential sources of information on conditions in the PRS. The 1996 NIHCS indicated that the state of disrepair in the PRS was declining with 88% in need of repair.

A multi-agency working group was set up by the Department to review the legislation. Their subsequent report was used as a base to bring forward proposals for change. The Private Tenancies (NI) Order 2006 was introduced with a proactive requirement from 1st April 2007 for landlords of older housing stock (pre 1945) to apply to the local authority to have the house inspected and obtain a Certificate of Fitness. These proposals and subsequent changes underwent public consultation. Stakeholders were engaged to allow all those with an interest in housing to have an opportunity to express their views and influencing the policy, strategy and legislative structure.

In 10 years from its introduction (2007 – 2017), local authorities have issued 12592 Certificates of Fitness therefore giving assurance and protection to tenants.

Local Authorities have addressed poor housing conditions when found. Some of this has been through informal routes, while other times enforcement notices introduced by the Private Tenancies (NI) Order 2006 were served.

Environmental Health Officers (EHOs) recognise effectiveness has been limited as the Fitness Standard remains the statutory minimum standard for housing in NI and does not address key issues such as falls, excess cold, fire etc. Some properties would still be considered poor by EHOs however pass the minimal requirements of Fitness.

The Department are currently reviewing the statutory minimum standard for housing in NI and have committed to change. They are also continuing their ongoing review of the role and regulation of the PRS.

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