A special post from Ben Reeve Lewis who talks about his thoughts on what the future may bring.
I wrote at the end of my Newsround last Friday about a growing storm that I sense is coming for the Private Rented Sector.
Constructing those few paragraphs set me thinking all weekend and as Vic Reeves used to say I wouldn’t let it lie.
I don’t think it is valid to just say I can feel it in my water, I have to be able to offer more of an analysis if I’m going to commit myself to print. So let me explain.
I’m in a unique position. I’m a private tenant, a rogue landlord enforcement officer for a local authority, blogger on housing issues, general rent a gob for TV, radio and the broadsheets and in the past I’ve been a homeowner, a landlord, hell even a letting agent for a smidgen of time.
So I’m better placed than many to not only pick up early signs but also to make observations from a number of different angles. This is why I’m not in the simplistic camp of landlord bad/tenant good.
Despite my day job resulting in me seeing some god awful properties and criminal landlords I also see nightmare tenants and wrecked homes, so I am balanced in approach.
I can’t remember the last time I saw landlords and tenants so polarised in opinion.
The Rent Act 1977 was full on, landlord bad = tenant good, legislation.
What prompted its inception were genuine urban nightmares about Peter Rachman and films from the not so swinging end of the 60s like Cathy Come Home, which highlighted the plight of tenants with little legal protection.
Even so, It took a decade for those concerns to become legislation. Politicians are slow to respond unless forced to. Rent control first came in when the rent riots of the first world dumped on government’s doorstep big time and the whole mess became unavoidable.
Rent Act 1977 =Tenants 1: landlords 0:
Of course as is the case with all these things the pendulum simply swung the other way and the Housing Act 1988 was born with its Assured Shorthold Tenancies and automatic grounds for eviction through no fault of the tenant under the infamous Section 21.
Housing Act 1988 = Landlords 1: Tenants 0:
Recently Lisa Simon the head of housing group Carter Jonas commented
“Too much fag packet planning and not enough real thought going into all this regardless of which political party happens to be having another bright idea today.”
A comment spot on the money.
The whole housing nexus through homeownership, mortgages, private rentals, social housing is a complex web that is rarely understood by successive UK governments, continually divided over big picture political solutions, divorced from the daily reality of landlords and tenants.
While politicians oscillate between Labour’s hasty crowd pleasing policies for renting and the usual conservative “Bungs for the boys” approach on the other, the army of 9 million tenants in the UK are beginning to self organize against a backdrop of other factors.
That is what is really trending and what people should be paying attention to.
A crumbling of resolve on the political dialogue front
For quite a while even discussing any form of tinkering with the PRS was completely taboo. Why interfere when mortgages rates are at their lowest and rents at their highest? The rental market has ‘Never been so buoyant’ as the property press has repeatedly assured us all.
And yet, despite several years of steadfastly refusing to regulate letting agents government have at last not exactly caved in but certainly lost a roof slate or two, in creating mandatory membership of redress schemes in a few months time and paying attention to requested suggestions from local authority enforcement officers about extending and simplifying some powers to better tackle rogue operators.
This goes against Shapps announcement when he was housing minister that regulation of agents would interfere with competition.
Certainly a climb down from a couple of years back.
At the same time that Shapps was digging his heels in the Labour party announced that they had no plans to regulate letting either but have recently announced quite extensive and radical plans to overhaul the Private Rented Sector, should any of those 9 million tenants deem to vote their way next year.
Rogue landlord awareness
Shelter initially came up with this vague term 3 years ago. I was critical of it’s simplistic call to arms, still am to be honest, but by God it has gained some traction with the media.
Jon Snow was the first to kick the ball into the arena with a programme on Rogue landlords in the autumn of 2012 and many others have followed suit. Since then I must have taken part in 6 or 7 TV documentaries on it in the past 18 months, including Panorama and Channel 4 News.
I am also about to be filmed for a couple of others while enquiries from TV and radio researchers continue to come in requesting information on intended or already commissioned programmes.
I’ve gone 20 odd years without anyone giving a toss what is going on out there and now hardly a week goes by without an enquiry of some sort.
Local authorities sitting up and paying attention
Last year Kris Hopkins made available three million pounds for councils who could come up with decent schemes to tackle the problem.
Chump change in real terms but again it set people talking and loosened the debate.
Newham had already jumped in with both feet and decided to license all landlords which sent the debate stratospheric.
I don’t agree with their strategy but the high profile it garnered has embarrassed lots of other councils into showing that they too can do something. Also in the town halls of the land, meetings have been held at high levels deciding whether they too should go down the Newham road.
In council terms it is relatively pain free in a sense. You don’t have to bother yourself with different gradations of landlord behavior or property conditions, just license them all. Everyone will then complain equally but you can’t get accused of prejudice.
The only barrier is the political will of the elected members. Which means that councils that are more left leaning, if that term even retains any meaning these days, will tend to be in favour while councils who dress to the right will naturally aver, given its implications on free market trade.
Being a local authority enforcement officer I am in the position where I sit in on meetings, attend conferences and have to contribute to reports and I hear where councils are going with this stuff.
Landlords have no say in these decisions, which are down to the political persuasions of the particular authority, the resources they have available and the personal ambitions of the elected members who hold sway. Even the NLA are working with Newham to try and limit some of the damage.
Central government gives out money based on results. If your rogue landlord scheme prosecutes 100 landlords then the funding will reflect better than it does on a council who prosecutes 10.
As the Americans say “Do the math”.
Around the same time that Shapps was playing King Canute the term Generation Rent was coined for the first time by a report conducted not by Shelter, but the Halifax Building Society who identified an entire generation of people who will be renting privately for their whole lives.
Just as the term ‘Rogue Landlord’ gained traction so did the label ‘Generation Rent’, adopted now by a younger, articulate, media savvy group of people who form the backbone of the growing number of tenant’s rights groups springing up all over the place.
The days of tenants rights groups being comprised of elderly disgruntled, socialist activists are gone, as are the days of a general tenant whinge-fest, easily defeated by a landlord community organized around the common flagpole of loan to value ratios and a ‘Buoyant rental market’ and supported by the NLA’s 3 floors of Southbank offices and a steadfast refusal of government to regulate the private rented sector, lest it interfere with competition.
Tessa recently gave us a handy in-depth analysis of the Generation Rent Manifesto.
I’m sure every landlord and tenant will have strong views on it. I know I do. I’m for it in the main but I think some of it will be difficult to achieve but again what it is doing is forcing conversations to be had which were heretical 18 months ago.
Landlords and agents across the land need to take heed of this because this is new stuff.
I’m not saying yay or nay, just pointing out what the debating ground is becoming and I don’t think that previous defences from landlords threatening to get out of the business or pass all regulation costs onto the tenants is going to help win the debate.
For 11 years under the Rent Act 1977 tenants made hay while the sun shined. For the past 25 years landlords have done the same thing under the Housing Act 1988.
Now the writing is on the wall, prompted by the political maneuverings of MPs mindful of the looming general election against the backdrop of a 9 million strong voter base with specific vested interests.
Personally I think a more balanced system of landlord and tenant rights is long overdue, but neither do I want to see the whole thing swing back the other way again in the time honoured fashion.
I’m not interested in winning the war as a tenant, I just want to see a fairer system for all and the Generation Rent Manifesto also calls for this. It’s now time to come into no-mans land and play football, not sit in trenches with your tin hat on.