For almost 20 years, landlords have had to provide annual gas safety certificates and in 2015, carbon monoxide alarms in the private rented sector (PRS) became a legal requirement. But despite electricity killing more people than gas or carbon monoxide, there was, until recently, no equivalent legislation for electrical safety in the sector.
Electrical Safety First has long campaigned across the UK to improve electrical safety in all housing tenures. Our initial focus, however, has been on the PRS. Not only has the sector seen a huge expansion in size (it’s now estimated at over nine million tenants) but a third of properties fail to meet basic standards. And research indicates that private tenants are more likely to experience electrical hazards.
While most landlords are responsible and law-abiding, the rapid expansion of the PRS has highlighted safety concerns, with electrical safety a distinct issue, as electrical problems tend to be invisible until an accident occurs.
Electricity causes almost half of all UK house fires which are (conservatively) estimated to produce £1 billion worth of property damage each year. But legislation now placing electrical safety in the UK’s PRS on par with gas and carbon monoxide protection is happening – although in a piecemeal fashion, with Scotland leading the way. This regulatory variation occurs because the governments in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, can create new laws on certain issues, including housing, through their devolved powers.
A UK landlord’s legal obligations around electrical safety have previously been rather ambiguous. The general requirement was simply to ensure that the electrical installation and any electrical items supplied in a rental property are safe during a tenancy.
ESF have lobbied for much more specific requirements, including regular electrical checks undertaken every five years, by a competent, registered electrician. We have also argued that landlords should undertake a visual inspection of the property after each change of tenancy. These proposals are, we believe, cost-effective, simple ways to protect both people and property – and key stakeholders, including the ECA, agree with us.
The most recent Housing (Scotland) Act included these checks as legal requirements and today, all PRS landlords in Scotland are required to ensure the electrics in their properties are inspected at least every five years. A copy of the latest EICR, or electrical inspection condition report must also be provided to the tenant.
In Wales, we liaised closely with Assembly Members on the Renting Homes (Wales) Act, which was granted Royal Assent in January 2016. Following consultation, fitness for human habitation provisions will come into force and regular PRS electrical inspections are expected to be included. While in Northern Ireland, the Department for Communities has stated that they would like to institute mandatory PRS electrical checks as soon as possible.
When England’s Housing and Planning Act gained Royal Assent last May, it contained an amendment on electrical safety, which we sponsored. However, until the regulation has been accepted by the Secretary of State, specific details are unknown, so we have continued to work on the issue as members of the Department for Communities and Local Government’s (DCLG) PRS Electrical Safety Working Group.
The DCLG has now drafted a report – which will be submitted to the Housing Minister, Gavin Barwell MP - recommending mandatory electrical checks. If it gains ministerial approval, draft regulations will be proposed, followed by a parliamentary debate and further public consultation.
Electricity is so fundamental to modern life, it can be easy to forget how dangerous it can be. So while our focus has initially been on the PRS, it doesn’t stop there. We have just launched a new campaign in Scotland called Inequality Street, which calls on the Scottish Government to extend five-yearly electrical safety checks to all social housing, and mandatory checks to be introduced for owner-occupied properties. As a first step, we would like these requirements to be imposed on owner-occupied flats, where there is an increased risk of fire spreading to other households.
Electrical Safety First intends for everyone to live in a safe home, regardless of whether they rent privately, live in social housing or are home-owners. We’re working on it.
Electrical Safety First has developed a range of resources for landlords, tenants and homeowners, to be able to check the safety of their property. To find out more, visit www.electricalsafetyfirst.org.uk