Scrap The Red Tape and Let's Have Simple Rental Regulation

That the private rental sector has become the government’s whipping boy for housing problems - landlords in particular, letting agents almost as much - is something of a given these days.

But when the increased regulation we have become accustomed to gets doubled up, it is the political class rather than the private rental sector that reveals itself as the problem.

Let me illustrate my point with two announcements made in recent weeks.

In the London borough of Tower Hamlets there is already selective licensing for private landlords (£520 to £660 per property for five years - good revenue for a local authority where 40 per cent of its population privately rents, although some reports suggest that enforcement and take-up of the scheme leave a lot to be desired).

Now, in addition to the licensing, there has been the news that the Tower Hamlets Private Rental Charter has been launched. It’s been created by that same council and it sets out the rights which tenants have.

The Residential Landlords Association and The Property Ombudsman schemes have endorsed the charter - imagine the publicity had they declined? - and of course it is absolutely right to say that this new initiative highlights the wholly appropriate entitlements that private tenants have to safe, well-maintained, fairly-priced homes.

No one can disagree with the sentiment but there is a lack of clarity: no one at Tower Hamlets council could tell me whether letting agents, for example, were expected to join, show support, or slap a sticker in their window to say they are on board.

So it’s fair to ask: do we really need another local kitemark or scheme on top of licensing in that London borough?

And what of London Mayor Sadiq Khan’s new database of agents and landlords, set to come into effect next year. Will agencies and buy to let investors have to opt in or out of that, too?

If so then Tower Hamlets landlords, for example, may have to register with the licensing scheme and the borough’s new charter and the London-wide database. With all this paperwork, where’s the time to work at being a good landlord?

Is this really an improvement on a single, well-thought-out regulatory scheme with money spent to enforce it? Or are the new schemes aimed more at making local politicians feel better by introducing additional duplicating measures to a fanfare of press releases?

Something similar is happening in and around Bristol where the West of England Rental Standard has been relaunched - it first saw life in early 2016 but didn’t gain traction, so now the idea has been resuscitated with a new PR-friendly name ‘Rent With Confidence’.

This is run by Bristol council and backed by a handful of other authorities close by - many of which, of course, have their own licensing schemes that are, in truth, more effective at improving rental conditions than the new headline-grabbing initiative.

Again, some local branches of industry trade bodies back the idea - perhaps because they dare not be seen doing otherwise - but is funding the bureaucracy behind a regional voluntary ‘standard’ operated by councils really a better way of spending public cash than funding more trading standards staff to police the already-existing licensing schemes?

I think not. And I bet you think not, too.

No one should regard this observation as a coded way of saying regulation and licensing are not required in the private rental sector. They certainly are required.

But we need a uniform single layer of regulation, applying in Penzance and Pitlochry, not a rag bag of local measures which satisfy the publicity requirements of here-today gone-tomorrow politicians but fail to do justice to the growing numbers of private tenants.

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