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Ben Reeve Lewis Friday newsround #110

Ben on a chair[Ben Reeve Lewis has been stockpiling the socks this week ]

Not content with simply having a freebie in the Cayman Islands this week, Frazzles has insisted on periodically sending me photos of herself on white sand beaches, lapped by turquoise surf, while I have been putting the heating on.

To get my own back I have been texting her photos of the growing pile of socks and pants by the side of the bed, a practice that drives her to distraction.

Merely in an attempt to upset her sang froid and remind her what she is coming home to.

FrazzzyA sad man

Where is a man to turn for comfort at a time like this?

The London Assembly report on whether or not the private rented sector in the capital is fit for purpose of course……Yes I’m that sad.

The long awaited document that I was party to has finally seen the light of day on Monday and I dedicate this week’s newsround solely to it.

The London Assembly Report

For a year now the London Assembly have been holding court over the vexed subject of London’s PRS, which has involved chairing 4 meetings with a panel of experts (I was invited to attend the one in December……I doubt they will ask me back after reading this) and written submissions from concerned parties.

The report is the result of those consultations and various rows between assembly members but the majority have the influence.

Dissenting voices from the right of the assembly are contained at the back of the report but interesting to note that they do agree with the overall thrust of it, albeit with disagreements on the fundamental cornerstones of the propositions. More on this later.

The report looks at such thorny issues as rent control, retaliatory eviction, landlord and agent licensing, property conditions and rogue landlords.

Rent stabilisation is the new rent control

The London Assembly report examines rent control but for some curious reason that I don’t quite understand they call it “Rent stabilisation”, presumably to get away from negative connotations.

They aren’t calling for outright rent capping in the old Rent Act style but hinting at systems common to the US, Sweden, France and Germany, whereby rents can only be raised in-line with inflation.

Although in paragraph 2.23 the report’s authors state “Both government and the Mayor are opposed to rent control, and from this perspective it is unlikely that new regulation to control rents will be implemented”.

Hot air?

There are 20 key recommendations in there but if the authors acknowledge that key elements such as rent control will not be adopted it surely begs the question, ‘What is the purpose of the report then?’ Hmmm. Now read on.

As a TRO rogue landlords are obviously of great interest to me. The report highlights the information we all knew from Shelter’s rigged FOI requests and comes up with 4 recommendations;

The four recommendations

1. That penalties for harassment and illegal eviction be increased.
2. A statutory obligation to respond to tenants complaints, enquiries, and requests for repairs.
3. That judges should be made to enforce maximum penalties.
4. A landlord register.

Comments thereon

Personally I don’t think increasing fines is necessary although I am heartily in agreement with the judiciary levying larger penalties that are already there.

Responding to tenants complaints strikes me as curious and I think more trouble than it would be worth trying to pick up the statutory timescales that would apply. Imagine the counter arguments and confusion.

A landlord register? Well I have always been in favour of that because it would circumvent most of the other remedies but of course a landlord register and rent control are 2 concepts guaranteed to bring out a rash in the majority of landlords.

The common argument, nay, Mantra, being that landlords will get out of the game and the housing shortage would get worse but the report doesn’t accept that argument.

Ben begs to differ

When I was asked for my views in the trial by stress that was my 3 hour grilling with the assembly in December, I said that I simply did not believe this would happen. In fact I am specifically quoted in the reference note to paragraph 2.23. I still hold that view.

The idea being put forward in the report is that if landlords stopped being landlords then the properties they are currently letting out would be available to first time buyers who are currently forced to rent against their wishes, the properties themselves are not going to disappear.

Letting agents

Letting agents aren’t let of the hook here either. According to a written submission from ‘Housing for the 99%’, only 4% of landlords who responded to their survey said that they had increased rents because of mortgage costs and 1 in 5 of them had increased rent because the agent encouraged them to.

Unsurprisingly the report calls for the regulation of letting agents.

Appendix 1 contains the views of the nay-sayers in the conservative assembly group.

Interesting to note that they say “Members agree with much of what has been written in this report” although they go on to say that there are areas of disagreement, notably over rent control and a landlord’s register. No surprises there either then.

Tenants rights?

Rounding up, there are calls for legislation to stop retaliatory eviction, which gets my thumbs up and calls to strengthen tenant’s rights, which gets my thumbs down, which may surprise many readers.

To my mind there is adequate legal protection for tenants, but alongside pathetic penalties imposed by criminal courts.  The fact is that cuts have so denuded councils of enforcement staff that there isn’t anyone left to stand up for tenants. That is the problem, not more laws.

Gallons in pint pots

For instance, I recently spoke to a planning enforcement officer mate in another London authority, whose job it is to jump on people converting properties without planning permission in order to jemmy in as many people as possible and he said his work is impossible because his team has 300 complaints to investigate, and his team comprises just him.

Which counters the claim in the ‘Conclusion’, para 4.6 that “Boroughs must use their existing legal powers to focus on ridding the sector of rogue operators”. Nice idea guys but increasingly impossible when staff are being interviewed for their own jobs.

So my overall view of the report?

I don’t think it tells people in the industry anything we didn’t know already. Even the Conservative members agree with the analysis of the problems and some of the proposed solutions.

The report’s reservations about real change in view of government and mayoral opposition doesn’t offer much encouragement either. I doubt Boris has been much troubled by it over his Lobster Thermidor and glass of Crystal.

I genuinely liked Len Duval, Tom Copley, Nicky Gavron and those others behind the report and really cheer them on, but I have doubts that it will move things along.

Mexican standoff

What it does do for me though, reading all these ideas in one place, is that I see that as much as anything else a complete change in belief about the fundamentals of renting needs to take place if real progress is going to be made.

While the landlord community are so vociferously against rent control and registration and the tenant community zealously promoting it as the only sop to their problems nothing will change. It’s just a Mexican stand-off.

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3 Responses to Ben Reeve Lewis Friday newsround #110

  1. Thats the problem Penny. Everyone agrees with the analysis, even most landlords to a degree but where the leverage needs to come is where there is least leverage or flexibility.

    (London) Landlords can agree that rent levels are crippling high and even accept the argument put forward by the CBI that housing costs are damaging investment but they arent going to be the first to blink and cut back if nobody else will.

    Tenants similarly say they want rent control and a register to deal with the rogue elements but without addressing the concerns of landlords.

    It’s a bit like the old Northern Ireland question where neither side is willing to give an inch.

  2. There are more holes in that report than in a Swiss cheese.

    Most of the 20 recommendations are wishy-washy soundbites that will amount to nothing.

    There are 4 or 5 recommendations that could tangibly be implemented if they were mad enough.

    But they’ve not thought through the unintended consequences in the unlikely event of them ever coming to fruition.

    Have they never heard of Peter Rachman?

    There are plenty of that ilk waiting in the wings to exploit the situation that would be created by such looney proposals.

    Although I suspect this is all about being seen to be doing something rather than a genuine attempt to improve matters.



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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