I was invited to attend the ARLA Conference yesterday at Excel London which was very impressive. Over 1,000 delegates were there so they are obviously doing something right!
We started off with the Housing Minister Heather Wheeler MP – who was responsible for throwing the whole program out as she had to be elsewhere at her original allocated time. She seemed a nice jolly lady.
She has only been in post for three months but clearly needs to do more work to get on top of her brief as she made a few humongous errors. Including ending her talk by recommending that agents check out the new rogue landlord database – when as we all (should) know, it is only available to Local Authorities.
Maybe she was thinking of the database set up by (Labour) London Mayor Sadiq Khan?
The Minister was full of enthusiasm about her party’s new measures to fix our ‘broken’ housing market, such as a new ‘How to Let’ guide for landlords, the fact that Councils can now keep fine money to help fund enforcement, plans for a new independent regulator and single code of practice, and bringing more houses into scope for HMO licensing by removing the three storey limit.
The biggest cheer from the floor though was in response to one of the questions which asked why we can’t have a ‘bad tenant’ database.
Justin King CBE
Justin King is the former CEO of Sainsbury’s and was there to give a ‘motivational talk’. He had had plainly done more research for his talk than the minister.
It looked for a while as if he may have been in error as he talked a lot about tenants being letting agent’s ‘customers’. However, towards the end of the talk, he revealed that he was aware that technically (and certainly after the tenant fee ban) letting agent’s legal clients were landlords. However, he then (rightly) said, that a letting agents main service is to obtain good tenants for their landlords – so their service should be directed towards tenants.
He accused agents of having an unnecessarily negative attitude and gave five reasons why they should be cheerful:
- Population growth
- Demographic changes – smaller families and more mobility
- Macroeconomics – the value of properties
- Supply being constrained, and
- Cultural change moving to renting
So this all means that agents will need to be around for a long time.
We also all learned a new word – disintermediated. Which is not a good word, I would suggest, for letting agents and is perhaps why agents do have reason to be worried.
We then had a welcome break, after which we had the talks which should have taken place earlier.
The President, Sally Lawson
So nice to have a female President and she looked very elegant in a subtly patterned dress and black jacket. Sally gave an upbeat talk, telling of the big advertising campaigns being run for the new Arla Propertymark campaign, and urging members to support it.
She also announced some new services for members:
- A tenancy agreement builder
- A licensing database and
- (Coming soon) an employment helpline
Arla members, she told the group, had to get over to customers what they do for their money (more than just photocopying a piece of paper) and make compliance their #1 focus. But Arla will be there to help them.
David (who will also be speaking at the Landlord Law Conference next month) has had a busy year. He is still lobbying government about the tenant fee ban, as although it is now a done deal, it is still important that ministers are made aware of unintended consequences so they implement it correctly.
He was however quite supportive of the government who are now implementing many of the things Arla has campaigned for, for years, such as agent regulation. He is pleased that they are taking time to reflect and hoped that when changes do come in, they take note of Arla’s recommendations.
He pointed out that in Wales, where they did not follow Arla guidance, there are major problems, whereas in Scotland, where they did, things are better. There is the possibility of getting things even better in England, so long as the government listen to what experts in the field (such as Arla) tell them.
The Arla view is that it is better to have a fence at the top of a cliff than an ambulance at the bottom, and training is one of the best ways to avoid problems. Hopefully, the government has the political will to do what is right for the industry.
This consisted of Valerie Bannister (ARLA), Douglas Haig (RLA), Robert Bolwell (Dutton Gregory solicitors) Katrine Sporle (TPO) and Katie Morley (the Telegraph).
A wide-ranging discussion. Here are a few comments that I noted down.
- Douglas Haig said he felt that the industry was still a bit old-fashioned and not using modern technology as it could.
- Katrine Sporle made it clear that TPO would be taking complaints from tenants, notwithstanding the fact that after the fee ban they will not, legally, be their clients.
- She also said that the profession had a ‘thin layer of bad’
- Robert Bolwell said that the tenant fees ban means agents will have to decide between charging landlords more, absorbing the loss or providing a lesser service
- Katie Morley said that tenants, on the whole, feel that they are being ignored
- Valerie Bannister said that present problems largely result from 20 years of government not recognising problems and dealing with things on a piecemeal basis
The group also discussed GDPR changes which will affect agents. Robert Bolwell said that agents must carry out a risk analysis and pointed out that consent is not the only basis for processing data. But generally, after 25 May, we will need to start treating data differently.
Katrine Sporle warned agents to be careful about data kept on staff laptops and phones.
My favourite comment, however, came from Douglas Haig of the RLA. In answer to a question from the floor asking if agents could send Christmas cards to cutomers without a specific opt in, he suggested that if it was accompanied by a leaflet setting out good practice it should be allowable.
After lunch came the other keynote speaker, former deputy prime minister, Nick Clegg.
Nicks main message was about how government is run. It is far more disorganised that we imagine apparently (surely not?), re-active and rudderless with most big decisions being made by a few sleep deprived and chronically knackered people at the top.
The Press, he felt, have far more influence than they should, citing an instance where an unexpected budget fund was not used in a way he thought would have been best, due to one journalist at (I think it was) the Daily Mail having criticised it.
He also pointed out that the whole immigration policy was partly formed in response to the press clamouring for something to be ‘done’about immigration whereas now they are complaining about the effect of this on the Windrush children.
He was not, incidentally, in favour of right to rent checks, and forced government to trial it first (although after the coalition it went full steam ahead).
However, one thing that is excellent about UK politics is the constituency element as all MPs hold surgeries where people can talk to them. People should take more advantage of this he suggested as many MPs would appreciate more contact and informed information.
In response to questions, he said he would not welcome a Corbyn government and said he felt both parties were backwards looking – the Labour party to 1970’s socialism and the Conservatives to past glories, which was not good. The economy is still suffering from the 2008 financial crash.
The rest of the conference
I left after that, wanting to miss the rush-hour, but probably should have stayed as I spent over an hour on Stratford station as all trains were delayed due to a plastic sheet getting tangled in the overhead wires at Bethnell Green.
You can read the Eye report on the minister Anne Frost’s talk – apparently, she confirmed that the tenant fee ban was definitely coming (well, we knew that).
All in all, it was an excellent and enjoyable conference supported by the usual large supplier’s exhibition below. Hopefully, it will have inspired and rejuvenated their members and will help them grow their businesses and avoid being disintermediated.