Our response to the Government’s fact sheet for property guardians

At Dot Dot Dot we welcome the increased attention being paid to property guardianship by central government, the London Assembly and by local authorities. Scrutiny and sensible regulation are crucial to allow the industry to reach its full potential as a solution for owners of empty property and a source of good, safe and inexpensive homes for guardians.

So it is positive that the Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government has just published guidance for people considering becoming property guardians – the document aims to inform guardians of their rights, which should enable them to hold property guardian companies to account.

This is helpful to guardians as individuals, but also helps to promote the “level playing field” called for by the London Assembly, where ethical and thorough property guardian companies can compete effectively, because they are not being undercut by rogue operators willing to neglect basic legal standards.

The Government’s document usefully clarifies the difference between a guardianship and a tenancy, and explains that property guardians receive inexpensive accommodation as a result of their role in taking care of the building where they live on behalf of property owners.

However, it is regrettable that the guidance underplays the rights guardians have to a safe home and adequate notice to move.

Legal protections already in place for property guardians

As set out in the legal overview Dot Dot Dot jointly commissioned from a leading solicitor and barrister who are experts in property guardianship, all guardians have the right to live in a safe home that is free from hazards that could cause them harm. This is a right which, in our view, is underplayed in the government guidance.

This is because of several pieces of overlapping health and safety regulation which apply to property guardian companies as much as they do to more conventional landlords. Property guardian companies are liable if living in a building harms a guardian, and environmental health officers have as much right to inspect a property occupied by guardians as they would a tenant’s home.

Similarly, fire and electrical safety, and regulations on Houses in Multiple Occupation apply with equal force to properties occupied by guardians as by tenants – regardless of whether or not the property was initially designed to be residential.

It is therefore misleading to suggest, as the guidance does, that guardians can be housed in properties that are in “poor, unsafe and unclean condition with poor physical security and limited access to facilities.” Guardians are entitled – under regulation that already exists – to safe, secure homes with adequate facilities.

Similarly, guardians are always entitled to four weeks’ notice of the need to move house. The guidance repeatedly refers to “short notice periods”, but doesn’t adequately clarify that this cannot mean shorter than four weeks – shorter notice periods are unlawful.

Maintaining and improving standards in the sector

At Dot Dot Dot, we are very keen to ensure that guardians are aware of their basic rights – this will force up standards in our industry, which benefits everyone involved. A better reputation for the industry will mean that it can grow and thrive, bringing more empty buildings into use and providing inexpensive homes to more people.

We ourselves go beyond the basic standards required by law, because we have seen that by providing good homes to guardians which are not just safe but actually pleasant to live in, we are able to attract guardians who take better care of their homes, and therefore offer a better service to property owners too. You can read a detailed statement of the standards we choose to work to on our website here.

An opportunity missed to offer a conditional endorsement

It is also regrettable that the government guidance fails to endorse or encourage guardianship as a form of housing tenure. We believe that property guardianship done well is the best possible use of buildings that would otherwise be empty, and can provide good, inexpensive, pleasant housing to those it suits. At a time of acute housing shortage, which government policy has so far failed to remedy, it is a shame that the Ministry of Housing is failing to do more to encourage best practice in an industry that is providing homes to thousands of people across the country, and which has potential to do far more.