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Ben Reeve Lewis Newsround #136

Ben on a chair[Ben Reeve Lewis is glad to be back]

After over two years writing Newsround it has become so much part of my routine that I actually missed writing it these past two weeks, like not brushing your teeth.

I even emailed Tessa on New Years day and asked expectantly if she wanted to run one that week.

“No” she said…..and so I sat twiddling my thumbs [you need to get out more …Ed].

But at least there is a wealth of material to trawl through for the first edition of 2014 – and first out of the traps is a bit of an inside story that nobody seems to have picked up on.

Remember you read it here first.

Mark PriskMoney for Councils with a plan

Back in summer 2013 Mark Prisk – remember him? He was housing minister for a short while before having to fall on his sword for being a chocolate teapot – announced that he would set aside £3 million funding for any councils who wanted to be creative with initiatives to tackle Shelter’s famed ‘Rogue Landlords’ .

Loads of us came up with plans and 23 councils won funding.

My lot got £125,000 for my ‘target the bad ones you know and leave the rest alone’ idea. Some got less than £100,000, one or two got a bit more but the average was between £100,000 and £200,000, fair enough, you can do a lot with that.

The announcement of the awards was published on the 27th December  and the big surprise was that the fund had been increased to £4 million without explanation and Newham council won just over £1m of it.

That’s around 10 x what everyone else got.

Curious huh? Especially given that Newham already have a scheme in place that is a year old and generating several million pounds on it’s own. So why the favouritism?

I honestly have no idea but it is clear that the Newham approach appeals to the CLG, so will downward pressure be gradually applied on local authorities to change their intended schemes to be more like Newham’s? Only time will tell but I smell a rat.

Redress schemes for agents

Towards the tail end of last year the government was making noises about introducing Changes to the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Act  that would require all letting agents to register with a redress scheme of their choice by October 2014.

I’m finding it difficult to find any more up to date and definitive information but it’s an interesting move.

I wonder though about the real effectiveness here. Trawling around in the interests of research I found several stories of dodgy agents coming a cropper at the hands of Police, Trading Standards, Environmental Health but nothing about actual “Redress” from the accreditation body.

For instance, reported on Letting Agent Today last year  I read of Keith Ranson, the manager of a large chain agents who nicked £210,177 of tenant’s deposits with his accomplice and co-director Melanie Cairns.

He was jailed for two years and quite rightly so but when asked for a comment, the agent’s accreditation body NALS evidently didn’t.

Seeking redress, an example – and what happened

My only run in with seeking redress was helping a client complain that her agent had taken 6 month’s rent in advance (French national so no references) and when she moved in there was no electricity supply and the landlord was aggressive and threatening.

The agent refused to refund her money.

I would name the accreditation body but, sloppy journalism I know, I actually can’t remember which one it was.

However several weeks later she got a letter from the redress scheme saying that unfortunately the agents involved had repeatedly failed to answer emails and letters or respond to phone calls so there was nothing further they could do.

So there’s the get-out then. You can be as dodgy as you like, ignore all correspondence from the scheme and they in turn will ignore you.

So, government’s new plans? Spin 10 – expectations 2

Bulgarians and Romanians

You cant have missed this one. On the 1st January citizens of these two countries have the same rights to live, work and claim support as other EEA nationals.

For month’s the press was in hysteria about a flood of economic migrants and several of the major newspapers actually had photographs of Heathrow’s empty arrival halls on New Year’s day.

Whether you are ‘For ‘em or agin ‘em’ as Walter Brennan would have said, did anyone in their right mind imagine that as the clock struck midnight planes would be disgorging thousands of benefit hungry ne’er do wells, through the ‘Anything to declare’ aisles?

The fact is nobody can calculate how many will come.

The right wing press reckon that there will be so many flooding in to claim benefits that we will all be forced to teeter on the edge of the White Cliffs of Dover because there wont be any floor space left to stand on in the whole of the UK.

The left wing press who ran most of the daft empty arrivals hall photographs would have us believe that there will be 5 of them.

The fact is however many of them do come it will be a gradual thing.

A friend who helped out at Crisis for Christmas giving out housing advice told me he met several already here that day and seeking housing, but over a week into the New Year I have to say that out of the 500 recorded souls who go through our homelessness unit every week we haven’t seen a single one looking even for advice.

What we are seeing is increasing numbers of people going homeless because of the benefit cap introduced a few months ago.

A fact not lost on Mr Fergus Wilson of Kent, a large portfolio landlord with 1,000 properties, who has issued eviction notices on 200 of his benefit dependant tenants as reported in the Daily Mirror and elsewhere [including this blog – Ed].

Wilson pulls the plug on benefit tenants

Mr Wilson astutely observes that the problem is that:

“Rents have gone north and benefit levels have gone south.”


“The gap is such that I have taken the decision to withdraw from taking tenants on housing benefit. From what I can gather just about all other landlords have done the same.”

In a rare meeting of minds the NLA’s Richard Lambert concurred with Shelter’s Roger Harding, the former of whom saying:

“What we have seen over the last three years in particular as the welfare reform agenda has progressed is landlords have become increasingly concerned about the risk of taking on tenants who are reliant on benefit,”

While the latter said:

“It is very worrying. If this policy continues over the long term, we will see blackspots in the country where people on housing benefit simply cannot find anywhere reasonable.

And I’m not having a pop at Mr Wilson here at all. I totally understand his reasoning. The benefit cap means people in my borough are regularly £200 – £300 a week short of the rent now, and no, you didn’t misread that, I do mean a week not a month or a year.

Mr Wilson has another plan though, which is to rent the properties currently being occupied by benefit tenants to East Europeans of whom he says pragmatically:

“We’ve found them to be a good category of tenant who don’t default on the rent. With tenants on benefits the number of defaulters outnumbers the ones who pay on time.”

So there you have my prediction for 2014.

Vast swathes of Kent will turn into the Steppes and the humble Kentish Cobnuts and cider apples will be pushed Cuckoo-like from the once proud nest to be replaced as the county’s culinary favourite by Borscht which will appear on the menu’s of the Nell Gwynne Tearooms dotted about the area.

People of Kent? Welcome your new neighbours with the cry “Allo darling. When you’ve finished unpacking come round and I’ll pop the Samovar on”

See ya next week.

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6 Responses to Ben Reeve Lewis Newsround #136

  1. The Wilson’s evict when there’s no need. Their rents increase because they want more money, not because they need to rise. Hideous people. It was the ‘…off your backside and get a job’ quote that made me furious,

  2. Actually Penny I get the message the Wilsons are saying.

    “Get a job to get a house” is absolutely correct. That isnt necessarily an admonishment but an acknowledgement of the reality that is being created by government cuts going too far.

    Being on benefits is rapidly becoming the modern equivalent of wearing a yellow star in rental terms.

    Benefit cuts mean tenants cant pay, pure and simple. The Wilsons are simply acknowledging this. PRS Landlords are businesses, not social workers.

    The homelessness units of Kent councils are going to be hoovering up the mess and then blamed by government when they leave families in B&B for more than 6 weeks as usual.

    What I would like to see is those same Kent councils showing some balls, picking up ALL the Wilson cases without quibbling, cramming them all into shithole B&Bs, allowing the applicants to put in complaints and judicial reviews and then turning around to government when challenged and saying “We are just putting in place what you tell us to”.

    The fact that councils meekly just accept these conditions and try to cover up the true homelessness figures is what galls me the most.

    Kent councils should look on the Wilson’s plan as a gift to expose what is really going on.

    In 1999 French farmer Jose Bove dumped a ton of liquid cow shit on the doorstep of the newly opened branch of MacDonalds in his home town of Aveyron. When charged with Vandalism he defended on the basis that was an “Act of food criticism”.

    That’s what Kent council’s should do with Mr Wilson’s cast-offs, dump the homelessness claims on Cameron’s doorstep to expose their policies, not try and sweep it under the carpet.

  3. I know what you mean. If I step away from the fact that the Wilson’s are inherently vile, then yes, this might be the spark that lights the touchpaper.

    But another analogy might be the man who set himself alight acting as catalyst for the Arab Spring. I think we have reached the stage where tenants can take no more: we/they have in effect very little protection, and the fact that the Wilson raise rents because they want, not because they need to and evict those who cannot pay is the problem here. They really do resemble Tubbs and Edward from League of Gentleman, don’t they? ‘We’ll have no repairs here!’

  4. Sorry to disapoint Ben, but the Wilson’s tenants won’t all be dumped at once. They will be (or already have been) phased out gradually. Those that can’t be rehoused locally will move to cheaper areas.

    In this case, Folkestone is 20 minutes from Ashford and has a lot lower housing costs.

  5. Tubbs & Edward?…….choking into my beer here.

    Seriously though Penny, I don’t blame the Wilsons at all. Some landlords have a social conscience, look at HMO Landlady/Serena, Mary Latham and Aki Ellahi at DSS Tenants. Good decent people but it isn’t an essential part of the job description and you dont have to not have a conscience in order to be an everyday landlord.

    I live in a trendy expensive bit of London but my own landlords didnt add anything to the rent last year, despite letting through a major high street agent who would have advised them to.

    I think the Wilsons are merely highlighting a disastrous housing policy and the finger needs to be pointed firmly at Cameron’s door, even if he has changed his parting to the other side of his head, in a manipulative attempt to woo tonsorially inclined voters.

    Reiterating my point above, council’s in their attempts to safeguard their funding add to the problem and they are the ones who shine the brightest light on it.

    If council homelessness units stopped gatekeeping (hiding the true figures of homelessness)then the figures would speak for themselves.

    Runaway rents and housing benefit caps are pushing homelessness through the roof. Stop hiding it and let the Eton prefect sit in his own mess. If Mr and Mrs Wilson are the unwitting agents of this exposure then bring it on

  6. Runaway rents?

    In what way are below inflation increases “runaway”?

    Since May 2005, the change in rents has ranged from a 5.2% increase in the North East of England to an 11% rise in London.

    Although my prediction for 2014 is that increased demand for rental property in England will result in above inflation rent increases this year.



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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