Residential houses on January 2, 2012 in Bath. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Why a ban on letting agent fees is essential

In the many parts of the country where demand for housing exceeds supply, tenants are being exploited.

Today the House of Commons will vote on whether to ban letting agency fees to tenants in England, a measure already implemented in Scotland and progressing in Wales. This debate will be on an amendment Labour has tabled to the Consumer Rights Bill.

We’re not convinced this is a left or right-wing issue. There's a system that doesn't work and it needs fixing. This is a managerial issue and the system that isn't working is the lettings market. There are decent agents, and we hear from them all the time. But in the many parts of the country where demand for housing exceeds supply, usually because of the availability of jobs, agent behaviour degrades.

ComRes poll we commissioned this year showed that 30 per cent of tenants have experienced "surprise" fees in the course of a tenancy, something supposedly outlawed by the Advertising Standards Agency. And 10 per cent report they have been stung more than once.

As a private market, you expect the price of a product to be the result of supply and demand. But the headline cost of rent doesn't include the increasingly complex range of fees invented by agents to charge tenants, usually after they have gamed a tenant into commitment. One such game is an extensive and unnecessary "registration" process prior to viewing any homes to deter a renter from registering with multiple agencies. It has become the norm for agencies to engage in practices that are banned in similar fields such as recruitment consultancy or financial advice. This includes advertising properties that are not available and levying charges on someone who is not your customer.

Our position is simple. The landlord is the agent's customer and should be offered a service for a fee. This becomes a cost of business when the landlord sets the rent, giving the renter a transparent view of the true costs before they make a commitment. Normal market behaviour of landlords would create a downward pressure on agent costs and an upward pressure on quality of service. High quality agents would win business from poor quality operators, who could no longer undercut them by hiking up tenant fees.

At the moment agents push down fees to landlords but are free to charge multiple times this to the tenant, often without the landlord's knowledge but certainly without any landlord pressure to reduce those tenant fees. Furthermore there is anecdotal evidence that some agents encourage "churn" in tenancies because of the value of tenant fees. We're simply asking for a market where landlords buy an agency service knowing the true cost and that tenants can rent a home knowing the true cost.

Due to insecurity of tenure, and of course tenant choice, one third of renters move home each year. That's over three million people, meaning about a million people a year are being stung by hidden agent fees totalling hundreds of millions of pounds. 

There’s a guy in Hertfordshire who has insisted I can't identify him because he believes he'll get evicted and lose his deposit if I do so. Because he's on a low income the letting agent insisted he pay six months’ rent in advance and renew his tenancy every three months thereafter, each time paying three months’ rent in advance and a £100 fee. The agent refused to let him ask the landlord for a normal monthly rolling tenancy agreement and eventually lowered the “renewal” fee to £50 for one instance. He has now been living in this situation for three years.

In telling you this I'm trying to show how the most vulnerable renters are most exposed to the crass profiteering of the worst agents. In this context it's hard to conceive of a Consumer Rights Bill without a ban on agency fees.

Alex Hilton is director of Generation Rent

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Why Theresa May can't end speculation of an early general election

Both Conservative and Labour MPs regard a contest next year as the solution to their problems. 

One of Theresa May’s first acts as a Conservative leadership candidate was to rule out an early general election. After a tumultuous 2015 contest and the EU referendum, her view was that the country required a period of stability (a view shared by voters). Many newly-elected Tory MPs, fearful of a Brexit-inspired Ukip or Liberal Democrat surge, supported her on this condition.

After entering Downing Street, May reaffirmed her stance. “The Prime Minister could not have been clearer,” a senior source told me. “There won’t be an early election.” Maintaining this pledge is an important part of May’s straight-talking image.

But though No.10 has wisely avoided publicly contemplating an election (unlike Gordon Brown), the question refuses to die. The Conservatives have a majority of just 12 - the smallest of any single-party government since 1974 - and, as David Cameron found, legislative defeats almost inevitably follow. May’s vow to lift the ban on new grammar schools looks to many like an unachievable task. Former education secretary Nicky Morgan and former business minister Anna Soubry are among the Tories leading the charge against the measure (which did not feature in the 2015 Conservative manifesto).  

To this problem, an early election appears to be the solution. The Tories retain a substantial opinion poll lead over Labour, the most divided opposition in recent history. An election victory would give May the mandate for new policies that she presently lacks.

“I don’t believe Theresa May wishes to hold an early election which there is evidence that the country doesn’t want and which, given the current state of the Labour Party, might be seen as opportunistic,” Nigel Lawson told today’s Times“If, however, the government were to find that it couldn’t get its legislation through the House of Commons, then a wholly new situation would arise.”

It is not only Conservatives who are keeping the possibility of an early election alive. Many Labour MPs are pleading for one in the belief that it would end Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership. An early contest would also pre-empt the boundary changes planned in 2018, which are forecast to cost the party 23 seats.

For Corbyn, the possibility of an election is a vital means of disciplining MPs. Allies also hope that the failed revolt against his leadership, which Labour members blame for the party’s unpopularity, would allow him to remain leader even if defeated.

Unlike her predecessors, May faces the obstacle of the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act (under which the next election will be on 7 May 2020). Yet it is not an insurmountable one. The legislation can be suspended with the backing of two-thirds of MPs, or through a vote of no confidence in the government. Alternatively, the act could simply be repealed or amended. Labour and the Liberal Democrats, who have demanded an early election, would struggle to resist May if she called their bluff.

To many, it simply looks like an offer too good to refuse. Which is why, however hard May swats this fly, it will keep coming back. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.