The Housing Act (2004) introduced a new way in which local authorities assess housing conditions. It uses a risk assessment approach called the Housing Health and Safety Rating System (HHSRS). The aim is to provide a system (not a standard) to enable risks from hazards to health and safety in dwellings to be removed or minimised.

As a local authority we have a duty to keep the housing conditions in our area under review. We can inspect a property if we have reason to think that a health or safety hazard exists. As well as providing the legal basis for HHSRS, the 2004 Act contains a package of enforcement measures for local councils to use. These powers can be used to deal with poor housing in the private sector.

We have a duty to deal with hazards which are assessed as 'Category 1' under HHSRS and discretionary powers to deal with 'Category 2' hazards - these terms are explained below.

The HHSRS provides a method of grading the severity of threats to health and safety in any dwelling. The key principle is that a dwelling should provide a safe and healthy environment for the occupants and, by implication, for any visitors.

The inspection process is a risk-based assessment and considers the effect of any 'hazards' in the property. Hazards are rated according to how serious they are and the effect they are having, or could have, on the occupants, that is, 'the effect of the defect'.

The system can deal with 29 hazards summarised as follows:

  • dampness, excess cold/heat
  • pollutants such as asbestos, carbon monoxide or lead
  • lack of space, security or light
  • excessive noise
  • poor hygiene, sanitation, water supply
  • accidents - falls, electric shocks, fires, burns, scalds
  • collisions, explosions, structural collapse

Each hazard is assessed separately, and if judged to be 'serious', with a 'high score', is deemed to be a category 1 hazard. All other hazards are called, unsurprisingly, category 2 hazards.

Inspections are a physical assessment of the whole property during which deficiencies (faults) are noted and recorded. Once the inspection has been completed, the inspector judges:

a) whether there are any hazards
b) the likelihood of an occurrence and the range of possible outcomes for those hazards

The assessment process is not just a question of spotting defects, but is all about risk assessment, outcomes and effects. When an inspector finds a hazard, two key tests are applied - what is the likelihood of a dangerous occurrence as a result of this hazard and if there is such an occurrence, what would be the likely outcome?

The action that needs to be taken to deal with a hazard will be influenced by who is occupying it. Once a property has been made safe for the most vulnerable, it should be safe for all.

The hazard score does not dictate the action to be taken, but we have a duty under the Act to take action of some kind if we discover a category 1 hazard in a property, and a power to take action to deal with a category 2 hazard.

Their first step would be to approach the landlord informally. However, if the landlord does not respond, we can move into formal action by serving an improvement notice on the owner requiring that the hazard(s) be removed or minimised within a set time. In more serious cases, we may serve a prohibition order prohibiting the use of all or part of a dwelling. If there is an 'imminent risk of serious harm' to the occupants, we can serve an emergency notice to remove the hazard.

This notice allows us to enter the premises and take urgent action to deal with the hazard. Emergency prohibition orders can also be used to gain access to a building if the situation is serious enough to warrant it. Even without using emergency powers, we can, with or without the agreement of the owner, carry out the works required in a notice (and charge accordingly).

If you wish to have an independent HHSRS survey carried out most private surveyors will be able to provide such a service. To find a surveyor, you can consult:

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