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Ben Reeve Lewis Friday Newsround #59

[Ben ReeveBen on a chair Lewis visits Landlord Law Towers  ..]

This is newsround number 59 and followed on from virtually a year of writing TRO Confidential before that.

Tessa and I exchange private views and ideas constantly and yet we only met in person for the second time on Saturday, when I stayed the night at Landlord Law towers. She does a mean bacon and waffle breakfast by the way.

We tried to have housing law business conversations but I kept getting waylaid by her husband Graeme’s enthusiasm for military history that matches my own.   [Sigh!  … Ed]

He even let me show him a photo from my private helmet collection and for the first time I wasn’t made to feel a freak. Frazzy take note!

Unthank ArmsFull marks to the Unthank Arms, for a brilliant dish of Pork Belly and pork and prawn burger. I only mention this in the hope that next time I go in, the publicity will garner me a free portion.

And so to business.

Albatrosses coming home to roost

Bedroom tax. An interesting notion that I predict will become a bit of an albatross for the government.

Lest we forget, it is the plan of the cold-hearted, loathsome Eton prefects who currently hold sway, to cut every possible outlay they can, to send a message to Greece that they are a bunch of lazy Mediterranean loafers by not buying in to the notion that austerity is all, regardless of the human misery it causes to people at the bottom end of things, whilst leaving your rich mates discussing the sad state of the nation over a £36 bowl of Pasta Carbonara at the River Café.

As a basic example, your kids leave home, you have an unused room, knock £11 -£14 per week off of your benefits. You’re on £74 per week Job Seeker’s Allowance, go figure. You are disabled and need that extra room for your carer? Tough shit, more on this in a minute.

Bedrooms – what are they?

Last week I mentioned this and the fact that social landlords in the North of England have spent the past few years building properties for families. Smaller 2 bed properties are in very short supply. North Lincolnshire Council having just 49 of them, so there is nowhere for people to downsize to, leaving them leaking benefits.

Lord Fraud, architect of much of this misery is seemingly back-tracking slightly. Reported in 24 Dash last Thursday he urged a sensible approach to the definition of a bedroom.   Sorry but I thought the definition was a room which holds a bed, in which people……….er……sleep????

Apparently not. He said he would be;

‘Leaving it to the industry to define bedrooms’.

A shed perhaps? Shapps has a task force for that. A sleeping bag? Shapps has plans for that too.

Quoting the article verbatim he actually says at various points:-

“If someone wants to rent something out as a three-bed and when they look at it rather closely, one room is a box room and that they’d better look at doing it as a two-bed – it’s up to them”

“Housing associations are doing a range of things to help their tenants and they’re looking at this pretty seriously”.

What a spectactually vague comment.

“In some cases and to going to the housing association and saying ‘this is not a serious room’.”

Er what exactly is a ‘Serious room’? Somewhere where you read Herman Hesse books?  Sorry to be blunt but have you ever heard such a load of waffley old bollocks in your life??????

A week later delegates at a National Housing Federation conference had twigged to the idea that Lord Fraud’s cheese had slipped off the cracker and demanded that he stop calling a spade a shovel and ‘fess up to the fact that Bedroom tax had nothing to do with making better use of housing space and everything to do with an obsession with making the poorest in society pay for the recession.

Quoted in Inside Housing he said:-

‘There are five million families on social housing waiting lists in England, and a quarter of a million tenants living in overcrowded conditions. We need as efficient use of housing stock as we can get.’

But he was brought down to earth by a timely reminder of a record in parliamentary debates on welfare reform in which it was acknowledged by government that it was expected that 80% of people hit by bedroom tax would be remaining in their properties, which kind of matches the points raised by the social landlords.

In the face of such a figure it makes a mockery of the idea that bedroom tax is actually about use of social housing stock don’t you think?????

Court case on carers

Property 118 ran an interesting story about the court of appeal hearing a case put forward by the Child Poverty Action Group, 3 local authorities and the Department of Work and Pensions  on the idea that disabled people might need that extra room to house carers. The court’s decision being that the government’s ruling was discriminatory.

Now, buy to let renters can apply to be taken out of the bedroom tax if they can show that they need the extra room.

Putting all of these things together does it look to you like the government has made a pig’s ear of it?

Welsh landlords may be licensed

On a retro trip, the Rugg report on licensing and regulating landlords and agents died a death with Gordon Brown’s government. Frankie Boyle once accurately describing Gordon Brown’s smile as looking like an autistic clown having a heart attack.

Since then government has denounced any idea of supporting the regulation of the PRS but this thinking hasn’t penetrated north of the border or west, beyond the Marches.

This week Wales announced a discussion proposal where they are considering licensing.  and ensuring that any landlord is a fit and proper person to be one.

Dogs in Spain

Me and Frazzy have friends in Spain, down near Marbella. They tell us that in Espana, you can’t buy a dog until you have undergone a 1 hour psychiatric interview to determine if you are sensible enough to own one, and if you have a criminal record you can’t own a dog at all.

My inner Alf Garnett likes that idea. If they brought that system in to South East London there wouldn’t be a pooch on the street. The man who said dogs look like their owners obviously spent hours with his notebook, standing outside Wetherspoons in Catford.

Landlords need to learn about the law

But what about landlords? Critics of the old Rugg report suggested that too much regulation would deter people from investing their money in the PRS. I actually agree with that analysis. Is licensing and regulation the way forward? Maybe, to an extent.

As a prosecuting officer for landlord and tenant matters I acknowledge that the PRS needs professionalising. It has a well-earned and terrible reputation as an amateur and shabby industry and in many ways landlords are their own worst enemies but as time marches on I lean more and more towards education as the way forward.

Landlords aren’t by nature rogues, and tenants aren’t by nature feckless. At the heart of the rental business is a legal process, of which both parties are usually, frighteningly ignorant. Everyone thinks it is all about bricks, mortar, rent and profit but renting is actually about the law.  [See here – Ed]

I honestly believe that more can be achieved by both landlords and tenants wising up to what is really going on between them.

At the heart of the PRS is a legal process. Lord Fraud however thinks its about bean counting. God preserve us from him and his ilk.

Ben Reeve Lewis

Follow Ben on twitterBen’s runs Home Saving Expert, where he shares his secrets on defending people’s homes from mortgage repossession Visit his blog and get some help and advice on mortgage difficulties, catch up with him on Twitter and check out his free report “An Encouraging note on Dealing with your Mortgage Lender” and have it sent right to your inbox.

Picture : the Dalai Lama

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9 Responses to Ben Reeve Lewis Friday Newsround #59

  1. Then they should get a job, if they’re having difficulty subsisting on benefits.

    I know this sounds simplistic but I’ve often wondered just how hard folks are actually trying. If thousands of Poles can up sticks from Gdánsk and Szczecin and manage it, why are the locals in Liverpool and Newham and suchlike unemployed. Such locals will, of course, be the first ones to grumble about “bloody foreigners.”

    I blame the schools. They seem to have inculcated the average Briton in recent years with a head full of guff about how entitled and what a wonderful and unique special snowflake they are and how it’s never their fault. As such people grow up thinking that the omnibenevolent state is always going to bail them out, so why should they bother with anything.

    I don’t care if this makes me sound like a heartless Eton prefect. I was brought up from Northern working class stock and they had this sort of attitude all along.

  2. Speaking as someone who has been self employed since 1994 and has therefore had to generate all her own income, I sort of know where you are coming from there.

    It is possible to earn a living without a job – the internet throws up wonderful possibilities for us all.

    We can all pubish our own books, create our own services and run our own courses without having to kow tow to a lot of men in suits, who up to now have controlled the gateways to these things.

    Its a whole new world of opportunity out there. No need for gloom and doom.

    The only barriers are in your own mind.

  3. Ben, you pull your punches too much. Don’t be afraid to say what you really think!
    Bedrooms, then. In the Midlands there are a lot of “parlour type” properties, ie ones with two living rooms. The second downstairs room is taken into consideration when allocating properties – it’s expected that they be used as a bedroom. How will Grant Shapps view this? Surely at Eton everyone has a parlour and they use them for toasting crumpets not for sleeping in!

  4. Also, speaking as someone who has for some years now been working at 2 or 3 sources of income simultaneously and doing 60 hour weeks as standard I also agree with both of your sentiments… an extent.

    Yes there are plenty of those people out there on benefits. I see them standing outside my local job centre at 9am with cans of White Lightning cider, a tee shirt thrown across their skinny shoulders, a dog on a hefty chain and a spliff in hand. When they ask me for 20p my favourite rejoinder is “Do I look like a F***ing cashpoint?”.

    But its too easy to stereotype them all as feckless scroungers. The situation is more complex than that.

    For every guy i see with “Eat shit” tattooed on his forehead (We have just such a local resident) who you know will never be employable there are others desperate to get off benefits but either cant find the job or are caught between the benefit/employment trap.

    I guess that you are a solicitor or legal worker of some sort JS and I know Tessa is and we all 3 have the brains and the general wherewithal to find an income by hook or by crook by using our noggins. Many others dont necessarily have that going for them.

    I am even prepared to accept that maybe more than half of people on benefits dont have to be on them for a variety of reasons, other than lethargy and a sense that the world owes them a living but I dont want to start tarring everyone on benefits.

    I dont tar landlrods with a brush used by the criminal ones and I dont want to do the same thing for the unemployed, however much it looks like that when I walk past Wetherspoons and see the early breakfast brigade.

    When I spend my days digging them out of the clarts over housing benefit problems and landlord harassment its easy to slide into writing them all off but I resist it as much as possible.

    Its hard work being a living saint you know. I’m gonna nip off to Wetherspoons for a rest

  5. To the first commenter: people coming from abroad and finding work often stay short term, even in barrack style housing, and then return after they have lived this way. Wages in the UK are much too low. And Ben: Buy-to-let landlords might not be intrinsically evil, but so many seem to have an attitude along the lines of doing as little as possible, treating tenenta like vermin (and not the people paying for their pension pot) and expecting high profits asof right, with no risk.
    The PRS buy to let has been building small flats, mostly with two beds, albeit in city centres where rents are far too high for rent capped claimants.

  6. A Catherine, well in that case maybe Fraud’s comment about leaving it to the industry to define a bedroom may allow for a “Crumpet clause” to take precedence. Also on the same reasoning would a housing authority be entitled, as he suggests to say “This is not a serious room” if it i normally used for toasting crumpets? I know which way lord Denning would have fallen on that.

    You’re a barrister, I leave the legal thinking to you on that

  7. Ha Penny I’m not as hard on landlords as you. The vast majority of BTL landlords I deal with do genuinely try to do the right thing, they just dont understand how it all works. The classic mistake they make is maxing themselves out and relying on the rent to keep themselves afloat. When the boiler packs up or a tenant misses a month they are straight away in trouble, with no residual funds to get them through.

    The landlords who treat tenants like vermin tend to be the professionals who look down on tenants as a species and just a source of income.

    I have a follower on twitter whose twitter biog says it all in that sense. Needless to say, I aint following them back

  8. I’m finding all of these comments quite helpful and refreshing.

    I have been renting out my flat for almost a year now to a family on housing benefits who are witholding 20% of the rent, are on the wrong council tax rate and have had nothing but a nasty letter from the council saying I need to stop harrassing this family! Good grief, I certainly haven’t been harrassing, just calmly trying to come to a mutual agreement on how we can resolve the issues. Is this normal practice of the councils? Shoot first and ask questions later.

  9. Catherine any council housing adviser/Tenancy Relations Officer with a few years under their belt certainly wouldnt but many new to the business or those with an axe to grind tend to presume tenant good/landlord bad.

    Down the years I’ve been lied to by too many tenants and had to work with decent lanldords being sucked down the toilet by them to go off half cocked.

    I think also, sometimes council staff send off standardly worded letters for an easy life. It’s cold comfort I know but often there is no serious intent behind them.The upset they cause isnt even considered because they send several each day.

    Many council housing staff havent learnt one simple word, “Allegedly”, and that can leave landlords feeling victims of accusations. To be honest, I’ll bet that if you call the letter’s author you will actually find them far more friendly and helpful than the letter suggests. The emphasis in councils these days is often on template letters that the adviser didnt have any involvement in drafting. They get told if X complaint comes in, send letter Y.

    Staff cuts are being covered by what is called “Knowledge based working’ or “6th Sigma” stuff which takes out human input and reduces things to a steppng stone procedure that anyone can follow, even with no previous experience.

    This is the future of housing advice and I am myself involved in creating these procedures for a company. Not on an ‘If you cant beat them join them’ trip but just I figure that I can actually create a system that has more subtlty and nuance. It is the future, expect more of these letters



About the post author:

Ben Reeve-Lewis

Ben is an enforcement officer for a London Local Authority, a housing law trainer, an author on housing law who writes for the Guardian & occasionally pops up wittering away on TV. He also runs Easy Law Training with Tessa & Graeme. Occasionally he sleeps. Find him on Google, and Journalisted. Any opinions expressed are Ben's personal views & don't reflect those of any organisations he may refer to.

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Tessa is an English lawyer specialising in residential landlord and tenant law.

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