I took a trip down to London yesterday to attend the ARLA Conference.
I have been to an ARLA Conference before, I saw their event in Norwich (where I live) last year. However, this is the first Big Posh Main Conference I have been to. I was looking forward to seeing what they did.
It was held at the Excel Conference centre – as their conference numbers have grown to such an extent that it is the only venue big enough. There were 850 odd delegates no less and a large exhibition centre. ARLA are definitely doing something right.
The main conference event was upstairs in a part of Excel I have not seen before. A huge wide room with screens to show the speakers to those of us too far away to see them clearly on the platform. I got one of the ‘media’ places towards the front with a table, which was nice.
The event started with introductions from the current ARLA President Peter Savage and MD David Cox and then moved on to the first headline speaker, Micheal Portillo.
I enjoyed Micheal Portillo’s talk. For me, it was the best bit of the Conference.
He started with a self-deprecating piece on his past political career which went down well (I suspect it’s a regular in his talks) and then moved to talk about politics and the private rented sector.
First, we got some interesting tips on lobbying ministers. Ministers (Portillo tells us, and he should know) prefer good news, don’t like moaning, and find trade organisations who are always moaning, a turn-off. However if they bury a few bits of bad news among the good – that is acceptable.
The Treasury, however, does not permit direct lobbying at all, you have to get to them via the Ministers. Which may explain a lot.
I found Portillo’s take on the government’s current hostile attitude to the buy to let sector particularly interesting.
Both Cameron and Osburne are (he said) admirers of Mrs Thatcher and the Thatcher government, and one of the big things that government did was increase home ownership substantially. This was a Good Thing for the party as creating more home owners equals (on the whole) more Tory voters.
However under the current government (and its preceding coalition government) home ownership has plummeted. This they regard as an embarrassing failure, hence their hostility towards the buy to let sector. This is unlikely to change under the current government (he said) but could change with a new administration.
He ended with a great story about Meercats and (by implication) Mrs Thatcher. Testosterone featured in it.
Brandon Lewis is a considerably less charismatic speaker and was also ‘on message’ (generally the kiss of death to the listenability of a politician in my view).
I found it hard to concentrate but I learn this morning from Property Industry Eye that he made it clear that CMP is not going to happen in the current Housing and Planning Bill although they may consider it later if it is clear voluntary regulation isn’t working.
I do vaguely remember something about that.
We then had a lively panel discussion with Betsy Dillner (Generation Rent), Roger Harding (Shelter),
Kevin Hollinrake MP, Sally Lawson (ARLA Vice-President) and Carolyn Uphill (Chairman, National Landlords Association).
Some very interesting points were made.
For example on the discussion on banning agents fees to tenants, it seems that (on average) tenants fees constitute about 40% of agents income and they can’t afford to do without it. Sally Lawson said that agents do a lot of work for tenants and so it is only right that they get paid for it.
Roger Harding then made the (completely correct) point that an agent’s client is actually the landlord so the landlord should pay their fees. However, Sally responded by saying that as tenants do not have representation (as for example commercial tenants generally do) agents have to take a more balanced position and look out for their interests as well as those of landlords.
Hmm. Stepping outside my reporter’s role for a minute, I am willing to believe that Sally does that, but am unconvinced that others do. What do you think, tenants?
I was interested to learn that, in some countries, there are agents who act for tenants, find properties for them and negotiate the rent and terms. Why don’t we have that here? It sounds like a good idea to me. Not all tenants are benefit tenants without a bean. Many middle-class tenants would be well able to afford that. Then they could be sure that someone was looking after their interests and making sure they were not getting ripped off.
A business idea, someone?
Carline (I think it was) made the point and if landlords are paying for the referencing they will be less willing to take a chance on apparently risky tenants and will just go for the obviously safe ones (as there is less chance of a wasted reference fee), which will make it harder for the others.
So far as rent controls are concerned, most of the panel agreed that history tells us that rent controls result in a reduction in the market which is bad for tenants. However Betsy thought it could work if it was done properly and revealed that she had just had a 12% increase in her own rent. In answer to a question from the audience she said that, no, it was not because she was a difficult tenant (!), everyone in her block had the increase. If you say so Betsy.
We then stopped for lunch.
The next headline speaker was Dragons Den’s Deborah Meaden. I don’t watch Dragons Den much myself (although I have seen it) but I did watch Deborah on Strictly, which she tells us, is all anyone wants to talk about now.
I enjoyed her talk, but I have to say that for a ‘motivational speaker’ I did not find it that motivating. But it was good and maybe I will take another look at Dragons Den sometime.
The legal bit at the end
One of the more interesting parts of the conference (for me) was at the end. Robert Bolwell, of ARLA helpline solicitors Dutton Gregory, did a really excellent roundup of legal changes during the past year.
There are, he said summing up, believed to be 145 statutes which agents need to know about – probably nearer to 165 after recent changes – which is why an ARLA agent, who through their training are more likely to know about them, is a better choice.
There was then a panel made up of Valerie Bannister (ARLA Immediate Past-President, Baroness Hayter of Kentish Town (Shadow Consumer Minister in the Lords), James Mole (Citizens Advice Bureau), Hilary Osborne (The Guardian) and David Smith (Policy Director, RLA), billed as a debate – Do Consumer Laws Work?
The main conclusion was that they probably would if only there was better enforcement. Although maybe there is hope for this once Local Authorities are allowed to keep fines to fund enforcement action.
Baroness Hayter was a bit upset to learn that Brandon Lews had earlier made it clear that her CMP (client money protection) amendment to the Housing & Planning Bill was a non-starter and urged all delegates to write to their MP about it. I would agree with that – CMP is something that is badly needed. We cannot trust non ARLA regulated agents to get it voluntarily. Write to your MP.
It was a good discussion and David made some particularly telling points, but it was the end of a long day and my notes are very scrappy. And this post is already very long. So time to end it.
A good event, and congratulations are due to on David Cox and his team. High points for me were Michael Portillo and Robert Bolwell’s roundup. Low points were Brandon Lewis and the lack of any chocolate pudding for lunch.
I haven’t mentioned the exhibitors. There were a lot of them – all the usual suspects and a few more for luck. I had a few walk arounds and chats to some of them. Gratifyingly several people stopped me and said how much they enjoy this blog which was nice.
The next ARLA Conference, we were told, is to be on 28 March, again at Excel. A date for your diary.