The New Kids on the Block

by Ben Reeve-Lewis

7 years ago

The New Kids on the Block

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The New Kids on the Block

What do you think of the way councils operate in relation to housing in your area? Do you think they are on the ball? – Helpful? – Proactive? – A blessing or a curse?

Not only can I guess your response but also the look on your face as you read those words.

But soft………what is that delicate fragrance I can smell wafting in on the chill breeze of the current housing crisis? The aroma of the Social Letting Agency. This may not only change your attitudes to your local council but also the way that you do your business.

The background:

As we all know the government has an aversion to red tape and a love of free market forces. So their response to the current housing crisis flies in the face of much perceived wisdom. House prices are rising or falling, depending on who you read, but the government are happy to let the mortgage lending industry follow its own logic there.

A cull on mortgage products and a requirement for huge deposits has caused a surge in demand for rented properties, which in turn has pushed rents through the roof and in the middle of all this housing benefit is being cut.

There are calls from Shelter for local authorities, whose enforcement teams have been denuded by public sector cuts, to prosecute more rogue landlords and their agents but the government aren’t interested in introducing licensing or regulation.

In short? A bit of a mess.

But a life-belt has been flung from the deck of this particular housing Titanic in the form of the relaxation of regulations which previously limited how far councils could get involved with the private rented sector, encouragement for them to be more entrepreneurial and even, horror of horrors, allowing them to actually make a profit from services offered.

In response the councils themselves are looking to the Social Letting Agency model to solve a variety of problems. SLAs aren’t particularly new, many local landlords and agents have worked in partnership with councils in the past 10 years to provide housing for residents in the borough with council support, but talk on the street is far more radical. Many councils are seeing this model as a way of both providing much needed housing as a discharge of their statutory duties whilst at the same time raising standards in the private rental sector through a variety of inducements.

What councils may lack in terms of financial packages that might appeal to local landlords, they more than make up for in services.

A well run council social letting agency can offer:-

  • Direct and collaborative connections with environmental health departments who emphasise supportive partnerships rather than simply enforcement roles.
  • Assistance with grants and social loans to help bring empty properties back into use and to develop more run down homes into viable resources.
  • In-house legal advice services from people who really know what they are doing and can help with the setting up of lettings and the eviction of problem tenants, including representation in court.
  • A hot-line to housing benefit. Imagine being able to make one call and know what the state of play is with your tenant’s claim, instead of being told they won’t talk to you because you aren’t the claimant.
  • Experienced mediation and negotiation services when you run into difficulty with a tenant.

These are some of the basic services that any council would be able to offer. Each area will have a range of extras specific to their community.

From the council’s point of view, as well as greatly improving relationships between the local authority and its service providers it will also seriously raise the bar of housing standards that the slack landlords and agents will need to meet if they want the benefits of being ‘in the club’.

Those who choose not to come on board will be in competition with a serious contender in the housing services marketplace and the worst offenders may even be driven out of business by that very competition. The complete essence of a free market approach.

It won’t happen overnight. There is still a very ingrained local authority mind-set to be worn down, people in the council who still think they are extras in an episode of ‘Yes Minister’, but there are also enough people who see where it is all going and are keen to direct things that way.

Landlords and agents should be talking to their councils and finding out what their response to government expectations is going to be. Get in first and find out where this new force is going.



Comments

7 years ago

Hi

What relevance has this article to Wales and the rest of the UK, perhaps and England only article, with quite few Wales councils having housing stock and social housing in the hands of organisations such as Newport City Homes, RCT Homes etc.

A few Wales councils are left with Socail Housing but I believe the Wales Goverment policy is to transfer such housing stock to Social and/or Community Interest Companies.

Where organisations such as the REACH/Charter Group in Newport advertise and offer a bid system for Social Housing.

Ben Reeve-Lewis

7 years ago

Hi Martin,
Thanks for your response. The point of my article was simply to let landlords know that the position of councils is changing in terms of how they deliver services, regardless of where those councils may be. Having worked most of my life in local authority housing I find this quite an exciting idea, the fact that we are being positively encouraged by government to break out of the old paper-pushing 'Yes Minister' mode. Grant Shapps announced back in June that attitudes had to change http://www.communities.gov.uk/news/corporate/1927939

However there are not only regional variations but also on a borough by borough basis. My council's social Lettings Agency, of which I am being drafted in as part of, is a bit different to the 3 other boroughs that we border because it is based on existing teams and procedures and local resources, plus what each council has in mind as their ideal model.

There will be similarities between versions being created and run by council's in cities and similarities to those run in rural communites depending on what other organisations there will be in the area to partner up with and the needs of each community.

The shape of a social lettings agency in Wales may be different to one in Northumberland but then Wandsworth's will have different demands and challenges to neighbouring Richmond, or Powys to Conwy for that matter

7 years ago

Hi

Grant Shapps has nothing to do with Wales and housing is a matter for the relevant Wales Government Minister, not Grant Shapps who is an Westminster England only minister, so your comments are England only. In future please research the rest of the UK and not portray the broadcasting angle to the Welsh of what is happening in England happens in the rest of the UK.

Be aware of devolution for the UK and powers of law making within Wales, Scotland and N Ireland. If you disagree with this reply please tell me how Grant Shapps announcement directly affects Wales' Housing, Social Law and Policy?

Regards

Martin Lewis

Ben Reeve-Lewis

7 years ago

Well Martin, as with all authors, when I write it is from my perspective and with my opinions and ideas. I cannot write about all issues in a single piece concerning the situation in England, Scotland, Ireland, Wales or Kurdistan, unless the focus of the piece is how things are done elsewhere, which was not the point of my article.

Perhaps you would like to redress the balance by writing a piece about how councils in Wales are dealing with the changing world of private renting

Maggie Dale

7 years ago

I let out several properties in West Sussex. Having two empty at the same time I approached the local council. They handed me a superb glossy brochure on their services. However, when I studied this in depth it was quite apparent that they did absolutely nothing. I could possibly, although this seemed rather unlikely get a list of prospective tenants. It was then up to me to contact them myself.

I would welcome a scheme such as the one Ben seems to think is fairly common. Wake up, I think these Social Letting Schemes are the exception and not the rule.

Maggie

Ben Reeve-Lewis

7 years ago

Yeah Margaret it is certainly early days and a big culture change is going to have to happen before things really get into their swing, and as I responded to Martin different areas will operate differently.

There may not be much in your area yet but my advice would be to make contacts and work with them, things will change.

One thing I was discussing this morning about this with a colleague is that for our agency to operate effetively we need to be taken out from under the 'Housing Directorate' and placed under 'Strategy directorate', because of conflicting interests that may stop ours working independently enough.

I know these kinds of considerations may seem strange to those outside of councils but this is the challenge we face. Happily, everyday, both in my own council and as a freelance housing law trainer who travels around the country meeting staff in other councils I can report that there are some committed and energetic people out there. And yes there are some old-school 'Sir Humphry's' too but we can deal with them. All we have to do is bung them some forms to fill in and they will beaver away on those while the rest of us get on with developing new programmes haha.

We have to shake off decades of crust to join the more entrepeneurial world and we'll make mistakes too but just latch on to the people you will meet who are in the game and work with them. The when you meet a 'Well I understand but the thing is' response you can just thank them for their time, hang up and ring your contact to get the job done

Ben Reeve-Lewis

7 years ago

Nobody said it would be easy Margaret, we are councils at the end of the day and not there to make your life easier haha. Seriously though this is very new stuff for council's to get their head around. Some of us get it but others dont. Our social lettings agency kind of starts today (I am surrounded by removal crates as we speak) and althoguh I am boundlessly enthusiatic about what we can achieve I know it wont hapen overnight and I also know certain people in the team who will be hard to re-programme. I'm not looking forward to endless meetings with some of them and listening to their "Yeah but" comments top every new idea.

Enforcement action against rogue landlrods and agents is necessary but nowhere near as necessary as building relationships with all landlrods on a local basis and incentivising them.

It is going to be about finding the tipping point, that stage where real change just escalates, like the final snowflake that lands on the branch and causes it to snap. Unfortunately I dont see how in the early stages that incentive is going to come from outside. It will people like myself that do that.

Although I am only part of a new team of 25 I am taking an unofficial coaching role in this because I reckon that if we can get an award winning service on the go and attract attention nationally that in itself can encourage less proactive councils to follow suit. Thats how it happens in councils, who are often innovation averse until they see someone else doing it.

One thing I have noticed is that our focus at the moment is too much on rules and regulations still and many have a problem seeing it from a landlord's perspective in terms of 'Whats in it for me?'. When everyone can start getting an entrepeneurial head on the tipping point wont be far away


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