What is the point of a scheme to improve standards for renters if participation is entirely voluntary?
I write this blog from the dual perspective of being a landlord-tenant law enforcement officer for a London authority and a London tenant. For some time now, people in my position have been looking forward to the long-awaited blue badge or kitemark for the privare rented sector (PRS) promised by the London mayor Boris Johnson. It was first mooted early last year but then shelved for the mayoral election, in which Ken Livingstone promised strong but unrealistic proposals to regulate the capital’s landlords and agents.
When he won the election, Johnson’s scheme was re-scheduled and his master plan finally revealed in the Mayor’s Housing Covenant – a grand title, redolent of radicalism, but promising very little.
The document starts with a personal note from the mayor which nails its colours to two basic assumptions: “More and more Londoners – many finding that traditional owner-occupation is unavailable – are opting for private renting as a longer-term housing tenure … it is clear that top-down regulation, including rent controls, will only serve to deter investors at a time when more, not less, investment is needed”.
These two conclusions pepper the entire document, but they are not givens. Few in their right mind would “opt” for private renting; they are forced into it with no alternatives. The idea that any form of control of the PRS will lead to landlords leaving the industry in droves, resulting in a further shortage of accommodation, suggests that the collective landlord community is holding everyone to ransom. But I’ve never been entirely convinced by that argument.
Johnson admits that he has little power to introduce unilateral regulation. Instead he claims that there is sufficient legislation in place to deal with recalcitrant landlords, and that this is enough.
Johnson’s ‘covenant’ lays out its wares in the form of a London Rental Standard, proposing a single set of measures for the landlord accreditation schemes that are already in place. A single standard would help in some respects – it would reduce confusion among landlords registered with different schemes in different boroughs – but the fly in the ointment is the fact that participation is entirely voluntary.
There is no procedural machinery that allows a defaulting landlord or agent to be expelled or punished, so what is the point? The criminal landlords who operate without censure don’t care to sign up, and the industry has so far shown a comprehensive unwillingness to regulate itself. Why does Johnson expect it to change now?
Many of the “defined standards” set out in the covenant are often unnecessary. For example, the document proposes a requirement for a written tenancy agreement but the Law of Property Act 1925 clearly states that you don’t need a written contract to create a tenancy where the fixed term of the letting is less than three years – this applies to 99% of all lettings. The case law of Street V Mountford 1985 also defined the three basic hallmarks of a tenancy that exist regardless of any written contract. Johnson is calling for legal machinery that is already in place.
The defined standards also mention making it necessary for a landlord to give 24 hours notice in writing before visiting a property, but this is already a legal requirement, as is the proposed standard of “returning a deposit promptly”.
The only novel idea in the covenant is that the standards are to be adopted by all of the landlord accreditation schemes currently operating. The remainder of the covenant revolves around the hoary old argument that increasing the supply of new properties will reduce demand and consequently, lower rents.
This is hardly going to benefit the lives of London’s tenants over the coming year. Rent arrears are up and so are repossession cases, along with homelessness applications. London’s tenants need urgent reform, not the promise of possible future rent reductions in a free market environment.
Ben Reeve-Lewis is a tenancy relations officer for a local authority in London
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