David Ormandy argues that proposed revisions to the Housing Health and Safety Rating System will severely reduce its effectiveness, helping landlords but making tenants’ lives worse.
The government intends to bring in a revised version of the Housing Health and Safety Rating System (HHSRS).1The revised version has been seen by the author but has not been subject to public consultation or review.
The term ‘revised’ often implies ‘improved’, but this version isn’t – it’s just the opposite. In attempts to ‘simplify’, it has given more opportunities for landlords to challenge action by local authorities (LAs), added arbitrary minimum standards that will encourage a tick-box approach, and introduced ‘tolerable hazards’ and ‘occupier behaviour’.
Bringing this into force would put simplification before the protection that it is intended to give to occupiers. Here, some of the more obvious misjudgements and weaknesses are discussed (there are more!).
A bit of background
The 10 years of development of the current (2006) HHSRS2Housing Health and Safety Rating System: operating guidance, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, February 2006.
started with an extensive literature review, matching housing statistics with health data and analysing the linked results, trialling different ways to assess the severity of hazards, and finally producing detailed guidance on its application. The approach adopted changed how housing conditions were assessed, shifting the focus from the building (an asset approach) to the potential threat to the health and/or safety of occupiers (a public health approach).3The author was responsible for co-ordinating the development work for the HHSRS and that of drafting the 2006 operating guidance.
This development work was recorded and used to provide a supporting evidence base.4See Housing Health and Safety Rating System: report on development, Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions, July 2000 and Statistical evidence to support the Housing Health and Safety Rating System, vols I–III, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, May 2003, originally available on the government’s website, but now only available at: www.sabattersby.co.uk/hhsrs.html (note: access was made available to those preparing the ‘revised’ version).
This novel approach, and the rigorous use of robust evidence, was recognised internationally and has informed how housing conditions are assessed in other countries.
The HHSRS approach
The principle underlying the 2006 HHSRS is that:
Any residential premises should provide a safe and healthy environment for any potential occupier or visitor.5Housing Health and Safety Rating System: operating guidance, para 1.12, page 8.
It is an assessment tool. Following a full inspection of a dwelling, each defect/deficiency is linked to one or more of the 29 hazards
. The assessor judges the likelihood
of an event that could be caused by the defect/deficiency, and then the severity of the outcome
if such an event
occurs. Numbers are used to represent the assessor’s judgements of likelihood
and the outcome
, and a single hazard score
is produced. This score allows comparison of the 29 hazards
, however different the cause and effect. Finally, the hazard scores
are put into a 10-point scale, with band A
being the most dangerous and band J
the least. (Note: the emphasised terms are defined in the 2006 guidance.6Ibid, paras 2.02–2.31, pages 10–13.
Updated – is it?
It is said that this ‘revision’ is an update of the 2006 version. However, the statistical evidence (the analysis of matched health and housing data) hasn’t been updated; instead, some figures from the 2006 version have been used, some have been rounded up or down, and others just ignored. (Note: The 2006 HHSRS used pre-2000 data; that’s well over 20 years old!)
Categories 1 and 2 – and now 3?
When introduced into law, it was seen as politically appropriate to place a duty on LAs to take action to deal with the most serious hazards (hazards in bands A–C, termed category 1 hazards) and a power to act for hazards in bands D–J (category 2 hazards). These duties and powers are set out in Housing Act 2004 Part 1. The Act provides for LAs to include a category 2 hazard with category 1 hazards in the same notice or require remedial action for one or more category 2 hazards.
The 'revised’ version has divided category 2 hazards into two (arbitrarily), and also colour-coded the now three sections (a traffic-light system). This dividing of category 2 hazards implies that those in the lowest section are either not worth bothering about or are ‘tolerable’.
If LAs include on a notice one or more hazards falling into the new lowest section of category 2, with or without a category 1 hazard, it opens the door to appeals on the basis that such hazards are tolerable and should be ignored. To avoid costly, time-consuming appeals, LAs could ignore the new ‘category 3’, leaving occupiers to cope with one or multiple relatively minor hazards.
Traffic-light systems are intended to influence decisions. As the HHSRS is intended to be used by informed professionals, this raises questions about how the ‘revised’ guidance will affect their judgements.
The 'revised' version introduces minimum standards. This doesn't help; rather it creates problems.
The phrasing of the 2006 guidance carefully avoided prescribing what should be done to remove, or minimise, a hazard. As the HHSRS was made to be applicable to any form of dwelling (a house, a flat, a caravan, a park home, a boat, etc), it was left to the expert assessor to determine how to remove the likelihood of a hazardous event and, if it could only be minimised, what to look for to reduce the severity of the outcome.
Being intended to be used to assess any form of dwelling, setting minimum standards was inappropriate and avoiding them added several bonuses. It gave the guidance a longer life. It recognised that what was considered satisfactory on publication probably wouldn’t be in five or 10 years’ time. Technological developments and changing weather/climate patterns were allowed for.
The 2006 guidance advised that any matter relevant to a hazard should be taken into account. This meant that, as well as any defects/deficiencies present, any other current or subsequent requirements (whether statutory or advisory, such as those applying to smoke alarms and electrical safety) were to be considered.
As well as minimum standards not being applicable to all forms of dwellings, avoiding them has other benefits. First, a ‘minimum’ will tend to become the norm (why bother to exceed the line?) and if the minimum has been reached, it is implicit that there isn’t (can’t be) a hazard. This also encourages a checklist/tick-box approach to assessments: if it satisfies the minimum, then it is OK – it passes – and asking for more would open a door to challenge. This is a dumbing down.
For no obvious reason, the original list of 29 hazards has been reduced to 21 by amalgamation of two or more of the original hazards. It seems that one of the factors taken into account was the similarity of the outcome. This may seem a good idea – but is it?
While the HHSRS focuses on health (the outcome), it is the likelihood that is linked to the cause of a hazardous event; remove or modify the cause – the defect/deficiency – and the likelihood is, at least, reduced. Some hazards are necessary and these should be made as safe as possible by reducing the likelihood – eg, for stairs and steps, one handrail is better than none, and two handrails are even better.
One new hazard in the ‘revised’ guidance, ‘Domestic and personal hygiene’, combines three of the 2006 HHSRS hazards: ‘Domestic hygiene, pests and refuse’, ‘Food safety’, and ‘Personal hygiene, sanitation and drainage’. The 2006 guidance gives the focus of each of these as:
•‘Domestic hygiene, pests and refuse’ – cleanability of the dwelling, preventing/limiting access and harbourage for pests, and facilities for the storage and disposal of refuse.
•‘Food safety’ – provision for safe storage (or space for a fridge), safe food preparation surfaces, facilities for washing, cooking and eating utensils, etc, and food cooking facilities (or space for a cooker).
•‘Personal hygiene, sanitation and drainage’ – personal washing facilities (heated water, wash basin and bath or shower), sanitary facilities (WC), with drainage pipes connected to the sewerage system or septic tank/cesspool.
While the outcomes from a hazardous event of each may be similar, it is the likelihood judged over the next 12 months that links back to the defect/deficiency. In the 2006 guidance, the likelihood for each is different – 1 in 5,585, 1 in 4,960 and 1 in 7,750 respectively – but the ‘revised’ version gives a single likelihood of 1 in 2,000.
As the likelihoods given in the 2006 guidance link back to widely different causes, why has outcomes been an amalgamation factor?
A draft of the ‘revised’ guidance introduced ‘occupier/tenant behaviour’ as a factor to take into account when judging a hazard. (Although queried with those commissioned to draft this version, this may still be present.) If it remains, it raises several concerns. The HHSRS is a tool for the assessment of housing conditions and whether the condition of a dwelling is a threat to the health and/or safety of occupiers. Environmental health officers, while trained to assess dwellings using the HHSRS, are not trained to assess behaviour; nor is there any guidance on what is ‘normal’ or ‘abnormal’ behaviour for the range of households that may occupy a particular dwelling.
Introducing behaviour (or lifestyle) gives another possible challenge against action under the Housing Act 2004, for example, where the hazard is ‘Damp and mould growth’ or ‘Excess cold’.
Definition of ‘health’
The consultation paper on criterion A of the Decent Homes Standard (DHS),7Decent Homes Standard Review Part 2.1: Criterion A, Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, May 2023, para 33, page 8 – as sent to consultees.
referring to the HHSRS, states that while it ‘is an effective way to identify hazards at the most dangerous level … [it] is, necessarily, a complex tool and does not itself set a minimum standard or take into account the fact that, unlike some other hazards, damp and mould can be unpleasant to live with, even where it may not pose a direct risk to health
’ (emphasis added). That final comment is particularly worrying.
The 2006 guidance gives relevant and important definitions, including:
Harm – ‘an adverse physical or mental effect on the health of a person’, including ‘physical injury, and illness, condition, or symptom whether physical or mental
’.8Housing Health and Safety Rating System: operating guidance, paras 2.09–2.10, page 11; emphasis added.
Health – ‘an individual’s state of physical, mental and social well-being
’ that ‘is not limited to the presence or absence of disease, infirmity or physical injury, but includes psychological injuries and distress
’.9Ibid, para 2.16, page 12; emphasis added.
The 2006 guidance goes further on the ‘Damp and mould growth’ hazard, stating:
The mental and social health effects of dampness and mould should not be under-estimated. Damage to decoration from mould or damp staining and the smells associated with damp and mould can cause depression and anxiety. Feelings of shame and embarrassment can lead to social isolation.10Ibid, annex D, para 1.09, page 55.
What is stated in the DHS consultation paper implies that the ‘revised’ HHSRS guidance doesn’t include these or equivalent definitions, with the result that they need to be added to the DHS (applied nationally, not locally).
Another example is the perceived need to extend the DHS to cover means of access to a dwelling as the ‘revised’ HHSRS doesn’t (but the 2006 guidance does11Ibid, paras 2.04–2.06, pages 10–11.
). This raises the question: does the ‘revised’ version give any definitions?
The guidance has been rewritten without recognition of the consequences: its attempts to simplify have opened doors to challenges; it has removed the need for professional/expert assessment and judgement; and (most importantly) it has abandoned the promotion of healthier housing.
Why wasn’t priority given to the protection of occupiers, rather than easing landlords’ responsibilities and easing the load on so-called professionals? This is not an updated version, built on what was seen as a major step forward in housing and public health terms; it is badly written, arbitrarily altered and undermines the basic HHSRS principle.
In the interests of housing and public health, it deserves to be consigned to the waste bin.
Acknowledgement: The author thanks Penny Wiles for comments and suggestions.