A win for rogue landlords as Tories block council licensing

Members of Acorn, the renters’ union, mount a colourful protest at Hove Town Hall.
Members of Acorn, the renters’ union, mount a colourful protest at Hove Town Hall. Tenants spoke of the neglect and lack of maintenance in private rentals. Photo credit: Rick Dillon

There was revolution in the air – banners unfurled, chants rehearsed, red smoke billowing above the heads of young protesters gathered outside Hove Town Hall. The demand was for a better deal for private tenants, and specifically for something rather unrevolutionary and ordinary sounding, even prosaic: a call for landlord licensing.

A Licence for landlords

Selective Landlord Licensing (SLL) was introduced in 2004 by the then Labour government to enable local housing authorities to place conditions on landlords in order to bring about improvements in rented accommodation in designated areas.

However, winning the backing of councils like Brighton & Hove is only the first step – some councils that backed SLL, including Hastings, have subsequently hit a brick wall in their efforts to get government approval to renew their schemes.

Still, renters in Brighton, protesting at injustices suffered by tenants, can take heart from Hastings’ experience: the landlord licensing they are demanding does work in curbing the excesses of unscrupulous landlords. I was told that the SLL applied in Hastings has helped upwards of 20,000 renting families over the past five years by weeding out landlords who refuse to maintain their properties to a proper standard.

Rogue landlords a nightmare for tenants

Acorn, the renters union, has brought attention to the issue. At a protest outside Hove Town Hall on June 19, tenants told graphic stories of neglect by landlords – urgent repairs left unattended and mould spreading on damp walls and ceilings.

SLL costs landlords a one-off fee – in Hastings it was £665 – to sign an agreement undertaking to meet the requirements of a decent standard of accommodation for their tenants, year-on-year for five years. Those who fall short are not issued a licence and cannot rent out their properties until they come up to standard. Applied to seven of Hastings’ 16 council wards, this helped drive up standards of accommodation across the town, according to Andy Batsford, Lead Councillor for Housing on Hastings Borough Council (HBC).

Blocked by Housing Minister Robert Jenrick

Hastings Council submitted an application for SLL to be renewed last year. But it has just been turned down by Robert Jenrick, the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government. The minister, who’s been accused of corruption on numerous occasions since taking office, said he did not believe that the evidence satisfactorily showed there was justification for the scheme in the wards selected by the council.

Responding in an email to residents, Council leader Kim Forward said that she was “bitterly disappointed” by the decision, adding: “The scheme has brought about an improvement in the conditions to rented properties and the fact that this additional protection is no longer available means it is the tenants that will suffer as a result.”

Conservatives listen to landlords, ignore Council leader

Hastings & Rye’s Conservative MP Sally-Ann Hart takes a contrary view, refusing to back a renewal of the Hastings scheme. Her response to HBC can now be made public, thanks to a Freedom of Information (FOI) request, which reveals she wrote:

“Hastings Borough Councillor [redacted] raised his concerns with me in February regarding selective landlord licensing in Hastings and St Leonards. This coincided with concerns raised at separate surgeries (pre-Covid lockdown) with various ‘good’ landlords complaining about the cost of licences and their anger that they were affected by blanket licensing as well as the ‘rogue’ landlords. Cllr Lee [the then leader of the Conservative group] also raised his valid concerns with me.

“I raised these concerns with the Secretary of State and could not therefore subsequently endorse HBC’s selective landlord licensing application.”

A local and national issue

Hastings is not the only council to be knocked back by Jenrick. Liverpool’s proposed new scheme was refused earlier this year, although it has since made a fresh bid.

One local MP backing landlord licensing is Lloyd Russell-Moyle. He told the protesters: “Landlords should not fear licensing. It’s a system that should be implemented – and the evidence is out there. We need to get this council to stand up, but also this government – to ensure we have landlord licensing everywhere.”

Labour MP for Brighton Kemptown Lloyd Russell-Moyle and Brighton & Hove City Councillors Gill Williams (Labour) and Martin Osborne (Greens) show their support.
Giving their support: Labour MP for Brighton Kemptown Lloyd Russell-Moyle and Brighton & Hove City Councillors Gill Williams (Labour) and Martin Osborne (Green). Photo credit: Rick Dillon

Cllr Martin Osborne, who is the lead member for private rented housing and was at the protest, told Sussex Bylines: “The city has a very large private rental sector. We are committed to improving privately rented homes and to make sure they are safe and well managed. This is why we have more than 4,000 houses in multiple occupation (HMOs) licensed or awaiting a licence. Through HMO licensing, we have been able to drive up fire safety, thermal comfort, and housing conditions.

“With regards to selective landlord licensing, the problem is that the thresholds the government has set for allowing such schemes are very high. The government withdrew approval for our previously proposed scheme, citing a lack of specific evidence showing these thresholds have been met.

“While we do not yet have the evidence we need, we are continuing to collect evidence and to work towards being able to apply for such a scheme.”

Good landlords object to being lumped in with the bad

But nothing’s simple when it comes to our rental market, and many ‘good’ landlords do indeed complain that landlord licensing is a cost they shouldn’t have to bear in order to drive out the rogues.

One landlord, responding to a consultation in Hastings, wrote:  “I am a good landlord and always have been, yet I’m being punished by an extortionate licence fee and additional paper work. It’s like charging everyone for speeding when, of course, most people are innocent. Charge a fee for those with properties in poor condition.”

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On the other side of the coin, private tenants are a vulnerable group – and many put up with appalling conditions just to keep a roof over their heads.

Concerns at losing that roof are very real. Now that the ‘Covid ban’ on evictions has been lifted, Shelter, the housing charity, fears things will get worse, with more than one in four renters worried they will lose their home.

Polly Neate, its chief executive, says: “The ban has been a lifeline for private renters who have weathered job losses, falling incomes and rising debts in this pandemic. But what happens now? Longer notice periods, while they last, will give some worried renters valuable time. But come September, anyone facing eviction will have just weeks to find somewhere else to live.”

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