If you haven’t completed Brent’s heavily advertised Private Rental Sector Consultation Questionnaire yet, you now only have until midday tomorrow, 10th March 2014 to do so. If you’re renting in the private sector, a private landlord, or have a property or business in Willesden Green, Harlesden or Wembley Central you really do need to read the documentation carefully… or just read this.
The logic behind licensing private landlords seems self-evident; 31% of Brent’s housing stock – 35,000 properties – are now in the private rented sector (PRS). This is a larger portion than the rentals of social housing. This is unlikely to change in the future. The English Housing Survey Headline Report 2012-13 released last month by the Department of Communities and Local Government (DCLG) has flagged this up as a national trend. Furthermore the Thatcherite dream of owner occupier households is collapsing: in 2003 the proportion of all households that were owner occupied was 71%, but it has consistently fallen and is now marked at 65%. According to the think tank “Million Homes, Million Lives”, which is linked to Iain Duncan Smith’s evangelical Centre for Social Justice, over half of all Britons will be renting in the private sector within thirty years as owner occupiers will fall to 49% of the housing market by 2041. Earlier this week, Kris Hopkins, Minister for Housing at DCLG, announced a further short-list of 36 construction projects that may be eligible for part of the £1 billion the government has set aside for build-to-rent schemes. 18 projects, half of which are in London, are already nearing the contract-signing stage from an earlier round of applications.
The movement towards renting in the PRS is undoubtedly a reflection of the artificial stimulation of the property market: in the past year the average house price in England and Wales rose by £14,000. In the regions this is in part due to the influence of the revised “Help to Buy” scheme. Mark Carney, Governor of the Bank of England, has pointed out that this scheme has little influence in London due to the excessive prices of property in the capital that is being driven by foreign investors. Last month the right-wing think tank Civitas released a report which claimed that 85% of London’s premium properties were sold to overseas buyers. The report continued:
“But while the figures are most pronounced in the prime market, the trend isn’t confined to just high-end properties. Estate agency Knight Frank says foreign buyers spent £2.2 billion on all new-build central London property in 2012, up from £1.8 billion in 2011.22 It estimates that 85% to 90% of new-build purchases in Greater London have been to UK residents in the past two years, meaning 10% to 15% of purchases are from abroad. In central London, only 27% of new homes went to UK buyers. More than half were sold to buyers from Singapore, Hong Kong, China, Malaysia and Russia.”
The report also noted that many people in London’s PRS spend “…half or more of their income in rent”. The DCLG headline report states that in 2012-13 25% of all households in the PRS needed Housing Benefit payments to assist with their rent. In January 2014 the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) noted a rise in Housing Benefit overpayments; the national Housing Benefit budget is now £23.7 billion, the second largest portion of total welfare payments after State Pensions (by comparison the expenditure on Jobseeker’s Allowance in the same period was £5.2 billion).
Addressing the trend towards private rentals the DCLG is talking about creating a new Tenant’s Charter in October 2014 which will outline the rights and responsibilities of both landlords and tenants, and address problems such as retaliatory evictions (where tenants fail to get their contracts renewed due to making complaints about the condition of their properties or other conflicts with their landlords).
All of these factors would suggest that by proposing a system of registration, inspection and licensing of private landlords and ensuring that their properties are “up to code”, Brent is “on-message” and working to complement national policy to benefit the residents of the borough. However, in outlining their desire to enforce this scheme Regeneration and Growth have committed an unforgiveable “process-error” which will see the wards of Willesden Green, Harlesden and Wembley Central declared as areas of “Anti-Social Behaviour”. The consultation document makes it clear that these three wards are a pilot for the rest of the borough. So to “benefit” those in Brent’s PRS the whole borough may end up being given an ASBO (anti-social behaviour order) by their elected representatives!
The issue lies with the proposed two-tier licensing proposal. Brent already has two types of landlord licensing for what are called “Houses in Multiple Occupation” (HMOs). The first is a legally-required mandatory license which applies to properties of three or more floors that are rented out to five or more persons consisting of two or more households (meaning that at least one person is unrelated to the others). A typical example of this would be a bedsit. The other type of license is known as an additional licence and is currently required only if the council view a need for it. It applies to properties of two or more storeys inhabited by two or more households consisting of three or more persons.
Under the new proposals this latter license would become mandatory, required for all private landlords in the borough who have such tenancies. This is a bit of a no-brainer and doesn’t actually require consultation; the scheme exists and could be enforced by an executive decision to issue these additional licenses to all relevant landlords. It is only contained in the consultation to give added emphasis to the extension of the PRS licensing scheme by introducing a “selective” license. As with the previous two licensing schemes there will be a charge to the landlord (in this instance £500 per property for 5 years, which is cheaper than the lowest equivalent mandatory license, that is £965.09 for a three bedroom property for the same timescale).
Under the Housing Act 2004 any extension of the PRS licensing system can only be introduced into areas that have either a low demand for housing – which definitely does not apply to Brent – or areas of anti-social behaviour. To make a case for using this latter Brent commissioned an investigatory report from the Housing Quality Network (HQN). Using responses from an internet survey that was completed by 188 people (of whom only 121 were in the PRS) HQN added these respondents ton information provided by the council and the police to highlight the following items as areas of concern:
Owner-occupier complaints about run-down properties, noise and pests in the private rented sector
Disrepair in the private rented sector across the Borough
Rapid turnover of tenants – where private rented sector residents (and landlords) have no long-term commitment to the areas where they live
LIFT – an agency catering for the single homeless in Brent – reported that it had to reject 28 out of 80 properties viewed for its clients because of poor condition
Increased street drinking in some areas (e.g., Harlesden)
Use of rented properties to run unlicensed businesses – including drug dealing.
The documentation uses a number of case studies from the 188 respondents, and is a prime example of qualitative research, and despite the “triangulation” effect of introducing evidence from two other sources is, quite frankly, of little research value. This is easily shown by comparing the number of respondents to the overall population in the three affected wards.
These are the number of households, not individuals, in each ward as of the 2011 census:
- Harlesden – 6,654
- Wembley Central – 4,380
- Willesden Green – 6,067
That’s a total of 17,101 households – not people – who may be affected by the statements of 188 people who may not even reside in their wards (another research error glossed over there!). Obviously this consultation may go some way to increasing the number of respondents on this issue, but historically this is unlikely.
In pursuing this route on such flimsy evidence Brent are introducing a policy of “postcode prejudice” to the detriment of all those resident in the three pilot wards. The demonization of these wards will create a self-fulfilling promise of further criminalising these areas. Landlords won’t register for the scheme, so illegal tenancies and overcrowding will increase. Owner occupiers will attempt to leave the area as their insurance premiums rise to cover the “added risk” of living in an ASBO ward. Parents will seek out properties elsewhere to get their children into a better educational catchment area. The ways in which these wards will become increasingly impoverished both socially and financially are multiple and often quite curious – the consumer magazine “Which” ran an article demonstrating the massive variance in free-to-use cashpoints in areas that had been stigmatised as poor, violent or decaying and those regarded as “respectable”.
There are two further reasons to reject the selective licensing proposal – question 9a on the consultation questionnaire. Firstly Brent already has the relevant powers to deal with overcrowding, noise disturbance, drug-dealing and so on; they admit it on the very first page of the consultation document. The council’s website lists a number of powers that they can use to prevent anti-social behaviour, which includes “nuisance closures” of properties for 6-12 months, “dispersal zones” where certain groups are barred from associating together and so on.
The other reason is that while Brent may complain that the existing procedures indicated above are time-consuming and often ineffective, this year will likely see the introduction of The Anti-social behaviour, Crime and Policing Act (it is actually before the House of Lords now). Earlier this year the Welsh government released a 146 page research report entitled “How social landlords tackle anti-social behaviour” which had input from 49 social landlords, six key organisations involved in anti-social behaviour, two specialist anti-social behaviour forums, six victims of anti-social behaviour and five perpetrators of anti-social behaviour… so it is considerably more comprehensive than the HQN report. While the Welsh report has many provoking items on how to get the various parties working together effectively, “Good Neighbour Agreements” the increased use of technology and so on to address areas of concern, one conclusion is worth quoting:
“The majority of victims and perpetrators interviewed for this research referred to the need for improved support from other agencies and the need for improved co-ordination and communication between organisations when there was multi agency involvement. This particularly related to perpetrators, who often felt that their wider support needs and often complex circumstances were not adequately taken into account when anti-social behaviour issues were being dealt with.” (Page 53).
It might be useful if someone in Regeneration and Growth read this document. “Complex circumstances” are not resolved by the introduction of such blunt instruments as a ward-wide ASBO and selective landlord licensing – particularly when this will impact upon the innocent residents of the area too. Make sure you answer “NO” to all parts of Question 9.