The return of the slum landlord

Observations on van Hoogstraten

Much has been written about the modus operandi of the slum property tycoon Nicholas van Hoogstraten, found guilty of manslaughter last Monday at the Old Bailey. But what of Mohammed Raja, the man van Hoogstraten's heavies killed? Raja may have been a "wonderful father", but he, too, like van Hoogstraten, was someone who had made his millions as a slum landlord and had more than 100 court findings against him for letting property unfit for human habitation.

It is doubtful that few of those who had the misfortune to rent from Raja would have used the adjective "wonderful" to describe him. Yet far from being isolated examples, landlords such as van Hoogstraten and Raja dominate the privately rented sector in many of Britain's town and cities. Britain is one of the few countries in the western world without rent controls, and there is £11bn of public funds available to landlords each year in the form of housing benefit. This clever piece of Thatcherite reverse social engineering only pushes the poor further into poverty while lining the pockets of "free market" missionaries such as van Hoogstraten.

From the left, at least, there has been no shortage of proposals on how to deal best with the slum landlord, with Frank Field's call for local authorities to refuse housing benefit payments to "irresponsible landlords", and the laws passed by the Scottish Parliament bringing in a tough new regulatory regime for all rented properties. But while both would be steps in the right direction, neither of them goes to the crux of the problem. In many areas of Britain, an estimated four out of every five houses for sale are being bought to rent. Thus the problem is not just about how to control the slum landlord, but how to control the growth of landlordism in general. The percentage of those renting from a private landlord has risen from 7 per cent just 11 years ago to around 15 per cent today. Apologists for private landlordism argue that most people rent through choice, but the reality is that, with ever-spiralling house prices and diminishing public housing stock, many now renting privately are doing so because they have no other option.

House-price inflation, fuelled by the likes of cash-paying multiple landlords (who now control more than 50 per cent of the total rental market) is ensnaring low earners into overpriced rental accommodation, ensuring that they will have little chance of accumulating enough savings to climb on to the property ladder themselves.

If the government is seriously concerned about social justice, urgent action is clearly needed to halt the relentless march of private monopoly landlordism.

The imposition of rent controls, compulsory registration of all landlords, and a new law limiting the amount of properties that any one individual or firm can own to rent would inevitably be dismissed by "free market" apologists as extreme measures.

But if we really are serious about stopping the rise of future Nicholas van Hoogstratens, it would surely be a very small price to pay.