Almost 6 years ago to the day I wrote an article that was printed in the Guardian Society Section titled “The battle against rogue landlords is flawed”, pointing up the problem with Shelter’s then shiny new campaign.
“TROs don’t lack the will to prosecute, but in boroughs such as mine we are so overwhelmed by the number of weekly complaints that we cannot possibly countenance any more than basic dispute resolution”.
I also took the view that the term ‘Rogue landlord’ which was a new one, was unhelpful to enforcement officers because it was such a broad brush stroke name.
Who were we supposed to be going after? The baseball bat wielding thug or the clueless amateur who broke laws they didn’t even know were there?
Landlord behaviour comes in shades of grey, not black and white cartoon villains. I still hold this view.
As a result of the article I entered into a long email debate with the campaign creators Robbie De Santos and Antonia Bance who took the view that although they accepted my point about the term ‘Rogue Landlord’ they felt the campaign needed a flagpole to rally people around and this made up for the negative effects.
Six years on what has changed and why?
This morning I woke up to a news story about calls for more robust action against rogue landlords on mainstream BBC breakfast TV.
In the past couple of years I have participated in several TV documentaries about rogue landlords, including Dispatches and Panorama and I’m currently doing some research work for Channel 4 on future topics of a similar nature.
I’ve been told that the series “Nightmare tenants, slum landlords” was a big hit for Channel 5 and a second series currently being put together.
Why is the world and his wife suddenly interested in reporting on the kinds of misery I’ve been dealing with for 25 years?
Outside of media interest I have also observed changes in attitudes to licensing schemes.
Recently I attended a workshop where a bunch of people in enforcement world were swapping information about the extension of licensing schemes across London.
Originally it was only Newham ploughing this furrow, but we were informed at the workshop that since April 2015 a further 19 boroughs are in consultation about additional licensing and there are fairly reliable rumours circulating that government are considering lifting the ‘Three or more floors’ requirement for mandatory licensing.
If this goes ahead then a lot of additional licensing schemes won’t actually be necessary as thousands more properties come under the mandatory licensing criteria anyway.
Just two years ago I attended a similar workshop with 100 enforcement officers who were largely against licensing for a variety of reasons but attendees at last week’s meeting seem to accept the notion as part of the inevitable future landscape.
In a month’s time government will be publishing their new housing bill proposing major extensions to rogue landlord enforcement powers to local authorities, suggesting a black list be created for repeat and wilful offenders.
It will also be pushing for greater penalties and for local authorities to be able to keep the fines and penalties to fund the enforcement teams.
It seems clear that the knives are well and truly out.
By public demand
The public want something done, the government wants something done. The notion of rogue landlords in the popular imagination has finally gained real traction.
I still have reservations about the funding and resources as well as the problems in practice, of prosecuting people under the proposed new legislation but hats off, Shelter have achieved what they said they would six years ago.
The genie is out of the bottle and dealing with rogue landlords is no longer solely of interest to a bunch of council TROs officers.
How did it happen?
The media interest certainly fanned the flames. I recall in the early days the comedian Sean Lock became involved, even speaking at Glastonbury festival about rogue landlords.
Russel Brand’s involvement with the campaign at the New Era Estate, although not technically a rogue landlord problem, suddenly made renting issues sexy and interesting, hence the numerous phone calls I regularly received from TV production companies looking for information about how it was going on the ground.
This shows no sign of slowing at the moment and as the media interest popularises the issues politicians have no alternative but to respond or look hopelessly out of touch.
Bear in mind that the extensive proposals for stepping up the war against rogue landlords through the housing bill and other mooted changes came not from leftie campaigners but from Cameron himself. Miliband’s Labour crew couldn’t muster a single useful idea among them.
Although now with Miliband gone London Mayoral hopeful Sadique Khan is widely reported to be putting rent control and restrictions on rogue landlords as a main part of his agenda as does Jeremy Corbyn.
The climate of public and political opinion is a world away from when I wrote that Guardian article in September 2011.
The landlord community response
The landlord community have also been a factor in the escalation of licensing and toughening legislation because as a community they did nothing to help eradicate the problem but complain that their business would suffer at the suggestion of any possible regulatory changes.
The common response being that any additional costs that might be incurred by decent landlords in an attempt to tackle rogue landlords would simply be passed onto their tenants, effectively creating the renting equivalent of a human shield, a strategy that did little to rally supporters for their cause.
On the BBC recently the NLA’s Richard Lambert said he supported tougher penalties on rogue landlords but is this too little too late? Certainly to stop the spread of licensing it is and the increased penalties are already on the table so the NLA are simply stating the obvious.
Also despite supporting tougher penalties Richard says in the BBC News article
“Courts needed to have the discretion to impose fines that were not beyond an offender’s ability to pay.”
Evidently still trying to protect rogue landlords who have been convicted of an offence.
Fines and penalties are meant to be unpleasant to deter people from doing it again, why should rogue landlords be in a different category from a car thief on £75 a week Job Seeker’s Allowance?
To correct Richard’s factual error there as well, the laws changed a while ago regarding penalties for housing offences. Judges now take into account the serious of the offence and the assets of the landlord when deciding on a level of penalty as opposed to the old fixed scale system.
A time for licensing
For the past 6 years in both my old day job and in all my articles, I have promoted the idea that licensing was not inevitable. Arguing that it required lots of funding and staffing levels to do properly whereas targeting the rogues and leaving decent landlords alone was more achievable from a resource perspective but we would need tougher, easier to use laws.
In the end that idea was not as attractive to elected council members and government as licensing and bringing out the big guns. Now both licensing and tougher laws are coming in.
As one delegate at last week’s workshop commented “Licensing has its problems and pitfalls but from a purely enforcement perspective it makes our job a bloody-sight easier”.