London Trading Standards
On Thursday the 25th January 2018 I went to the Guildhall, art gallery near the Bank of England to a seminar arranged by London Trading Standards on enforcing legislation against letting agents in the capital.
There were around 85 delegates, most of whom, as you would expect, were council Trading Standards officers but not exclusively.
David Cox from ARLA was a delegate and speaker, as was Isabel Thomson from NALS and property investment expert Kate Pierson, author of the government booklet “How to rent”, along with a brace of people from national letting agencies and a smattering of landlords, licensing officers, EHOs and random TROs like me.
An interesting mix of views.
Despite legislation authorities slow to act
Legislation governing the activities of letting agents have been gifted to trading standards officers over the past couple of years but taken overall, local authorities have a poor record on taking them rogue agents to task.
Camden Council take Foxtons to court
Newham are, as you would expect, in the front line, introducing the star quality standard for their agents and Camden reported an interesting and yet legally complex result they had against Foxtons, over the use of the phrase “Fees could cover” in the contracts, causing the courts to take the view that it wasn’t specific enough about what it actually covered.
The case having been driven through the courts by the amiable Daniel Breyley of Gough St Chambers who explained the legalities of the decision.
Assessing costs needs to be paramount
The head of Westminster Trading Standard’s set out an astonishing and highly amusing tale of a protracted case against a serial fraudster letting agent who stole money from both landlords and tenants that took 2 years to prosecute, cost the council £140,000 to mount but resulted in only £1,500 worth of costs returned.
And therein lies some of the problems facing enforcement teams, the return on investment for protecting the public interest. A serious and genuine pre-assessment needs to be made before instigating action.
A point reiterated by the head of another London Trading Standards team who said that before they could do a single prosecution he had to produce a risk report for members before being cleared to move forward.
Council’s do not have manpower
Some trading standards teams reported that where their staffing levels had been cut to the bone in the council budget cuts of 2015, they were now facing further job losses and having to consider priorities very closely.
I was sat next to a landlord who listened with interest to the days’ proceedings and he turned to me late in the afternoon and said:-
“Its all very well giving council powers but if cuts mean they don’t have enough staff or resources to impose them, whats the point?”.
What indeed sir!
In the afternoon panel discussion David Cox and Isobel Thomson also commented that government needs to seriously fund enforcement if they are committed to it happening.
Dodgy letting agents flout the system
The new penalty system allows councils to keep the money to pay for enforcement but it will often be some considerable time until the perpetrators are forced to actually pay up. Figures were shown on how many dodgy letting agents fold up their business rather than pay any fines or penalties.
Also many local authorities, as was commented upon by delegates, aren’t always quick to see or capitalise on the new system, which will help out if more authorities can remove the film from their eyes, as the excellent Debi Waite has at Northampton Council, who delivered a presentation on joined-up working and advanced intelligence gathering that inspired all.
The number of letting agents has increased dramatically
Much head nodding ensued when the topic turned to the explosion in the number of letting agents experienced by every enforcement officer in the room.
A senior manager of one of the largest local authorities in London informed the assembled throng that whereas in 2014 his council had 45 letting agents they now have over 300, attracted to the financial bun-fest but with only 3.5 Trading Standards officers to deal with all the various legal infractions across one of the most populated areas in the UK.
Bear in mind that Trading Standards also investigates and prosecutes, doorstep crime, rogue traders, counterfeit tobacco, counterfeit alcohol, under-age sales etc.
ARLA and NALS reps both said that they had tried to report rogue agents to local authorities but with no take-up, although they acknowledged the size of the letting sector against the under-staffed and under-resourced trading standards units was a likely explanation.
Despite the difficulties faced by all, it was quite a positive day.
Councils need to work together
Enthusiasm for joined-up, multi-agency working was a big outcome. Something about which I am particularly messianic, having experienced how it works when it is employed and how toothless everyone is when officers stick to silo working and not sharing intel.
The report back at the end from the workshop groups was that funding will continue to be an issue but inter-team and inter-borough working could do much to improve things, as would a central recording system used by all.
The London Landlord & Agent checker helps
The London landlord and agent checker, recently launched by the GLA and explained by Megan Life from City Hall is a big plus and will help enforcement officers keep abreast of who is doing what and then there was the lunch.
As a veteran of countless seminars and conferences, I have to say the lunch was spot on. Prosciutto with Mozzarella on sourdough, fillet steak kebabs with Béarnaise sauce, warm croissants with Smoked Salmon?
That’s the Guildhall for you.