15:32 PM, 23rd November 2011, About 10 years ago 5
By Guest Columnist Ben Reeve-Lewis
I work for a council in London. I’m the landlord’s nemesis, the bogey man, a Tenancy Relations Officer; the guy who prosecutes landlords for harassment and illegal eviction, the one who gets injunctions out against them, has them arrested, helps tenants claim damages against them, kicks doors in and pushes tenants back into property when the landlord doesn’t want them.
I looked at the new Housing Strategy and the provisions of the Localism Act this week with great interest. Not to see how many shiny new legal powers I may have been given but with a sense of relief that I can at last do something more constructive and useful with my time.
I’ve been housing’s answer to The Sweeney since 1990 and apart from individual successes and job satisfaction, my work and that of hundreds like me has had little effect on improving property standards or eradicating thugs and bullies from the Private Rented Sector.
Even in the 1990s I recognised that there had to be a better way to raise standards in the PRS than running around with a blue light on my head. Sure, I have dealt with some contemptible bullies and nutters among the landlord fraternity but it has to be said I have also met their match among the tenants as well.
At last Government thinking has caught up.
The right to buy scheme denuded the public sector of social housing and the loss of revenue on the sale didn’t allow for the building of replacement homes, which is one of the reasons that we have a housing shortage now. Grant Shapps has promised ‘Son of Right to Buy’, the latest version with a 50% discount and a home to be built for every one sold, although how you build a new home with only 50% revenue is going to be interesting to watch unfold, especially as Government will still take a cut (the strategy doesn’t say how much) and I presume the council will have to make up the extra through rent receipts.
But most importantly this means less social homes, at least for the medium term and with housing benefit caps and universal credit on the horizon and the Localism Act which widens council’s powers to rehouse homeless applicants in the private sector, the council needs private landlords more than ever. It doesn’t make any sense to just threaten and enforce all the time.
Luckily, both government and councils themselves are waking up to this situation. Central government has relaxed restrictions on local authorities and is urging them to partner up with the PRS. They have even allowed councils to turn a profit in deals we set up. In council terms this is an absolute heresy and has caused more than one of my colleagues to have to sit down and reach for their Ventolin inhaler.
The challenge for councils is going to be in seeing what is needed from the entrepreneurial side of the fence and it will take a while.
I have heard that when training an elephant the Mahouts of India tether them to a steel post driven into the ground when they are young. By the time the elephant is full grown the post is the same size and the elephant could easily rip it out and wander off but their conditioning keeps them there. It’s going to be like that.
Similarly, I have heard if you put thousands of fruit flies in a glass box for half an hour and remove the box they continue to fly in a cube shape. It is going to take many council workers quite a while to stop flying around in a town hall shape but we will get there.
Councils need to start building relationships with their local landlords, helping them out with everything from housing advice, to assistance claiming grants, sorting out benefits etc. Many councils have started what are generically called Social Lettings Agencies, like a high street letting agent but with far more facilities, support and professional knowledge.
What we will need from our landlords will be a defined property standard and a standard of lawful behaviour towards the tenants. The thing is, they don’t need us. They are doing fine by themselves, so in order to bring them onboard we will have to provide a hell of a lot, and that is the aim.
Imagine you are a landlord who has an organisation they can go to that they can trust and who have instant access to Environmental Health, mediation services, free legal advice and even eviction specialists like me on tap who could help them to evict nightmare tenants without messing up the paperwork. An organisation who doesn’t just stonewall them and refuse to give information like before, but a team who are on first name terms with their landlords who will jump in when there is a crisis and aren’t just looking for their 10% like a high street agent.
That is the future of the private sector/council world and it is like Christmas 1914 when the Tommies and the Germans came out of their trenches to play football, only this time we wont be climbing back into them again.
The whole rental landscape is changing; homelessness is already on the increase and with so many landlords moving away from housing benefit claimants because of the cuts, especially the single room rate extensions due to come into force in January, councils are also going to be leaning on external support agencies like the Salvation Army, Homeless Link and the National Homelessness Advisory Service as well as out private landlords.
Councils don’t have the resources or facilities to deal with all this in-house anymore.
If the PRS didn’t exist the housing world would be deeper in the mire than it already is. The resource is there, it has been for years in the shape of what the PRS provides and what the council have always provided but up until now there wasn’t the metaphorical software to allow the 2 sectors to cooperate with each other.
With prohibitive lending practices in the form of ludicrously high deposits giving rise to what the Halifax termed ‘Generation Rent’, more and more people relying on the PRS we cant allow it to just go it’s own merry way.
It’s not stretching a point in the current climate to say that the PRS is like an emergency service, people need rented homes, councils and housing associations don’t have enough to plug the gap. However, property standards are lowest in the PRS and if we are to raise the game and make the UK’s PRS something that serves the community councils need to roll their sleeves up and get in there.
Private-Public partnerships will be the way forward from now on. I honestly think this is the best thing to happen in housing since George Peabody first got cement on his trousers.
Ben Reeve-Lewis has worked in Landlord-Tenant law since 1987. He operates variously as a Tenancy Relations Officer, a housing blogger, particularly on Tessa Shepperson’s Landlord Law Blog, a housing law trainer for the Chartered Institute of Housing and a broadcaster. In his time he has been a landlord, a tenant, a letting agent and a defender of mortgage repossession cases. There isn’t much left in housing for him to have had experience of.
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