We need a new approach to the private rented sector. Photo: Getty
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How to stop landlords maximising their profits at the expense of tenants

Why it's time to stop the light-touch approach to private rented sector regulation.

The treatment of tenants of the New Era estate by Westbrook Partners is deplorable. Like thousands of other private tenants across London, the New Era estate highlights the degree to which private renters have become disempowered and, increasingly, at the mercy of landlords who are only concerned by profits.

On Monday, Boris Johnson decided to wade into the dispute. He will, he said, ask his Deputy Mayor for Housing and Land to write to the landlord.

What the letter will say is beyond me; the Mayor is utterly opposed to stronger regulation of private landlords.

His 2012 manifesto explicitly pledged to "campaign against rent controls" and has claimed that the existing regulations are "broadly sufficient". In 2012, Boris's Housing Covenant went further, arguing that "regulation is damaging for investment into the PRS and it should always be a last resort" and that "the sector's capacity for voluntary self-regulation has not yet been exhausted".

That's the Mayor's policy, a private rented sector where regulation is determined by landlords and letting agents, which they can ultimately decide not to abide by anyway. As a system for protecting tenants, it's laughable.

From banking to housing, at the most fundamental level the role of government is to protect citizens from market excesses. Can it really be said that the state has done enough to protect private sector tenants? I'd argue not, and the shocking treatment of tenants on the New Era estate - and thousands of tenants like them across London - is testament to this.

In London, private sector rents increased by 13 per cent in the year to October 2013, 39 per cent of private rented sector tenants now live in poverty and one-third of privately rented homes fall below the Decent Homes standard used in the social rented sector. Between 2008 and 2013, complaints against London landlords increased by 47 per cent.

The awkward truth for the Mayor is that the New Era estate is a nauseating piece of a bigger picture about the private rented sector. Given the lax regulatory system governing it, this is how private landlords can and do behave - particularly in London where housing need far outstrips housing supply.

Westbrook are doing what landlords will do given the opportunity - profit maximising at the expense of tenants. Rather than the Mayor half-heartedly asking the landlord to be nice, we need tougher regulations that provide genuine protection to people in their homes.

The argument that stronger regulations force landlords out of the market (incidentally, this argument seems to assume landlords will demolish their homes rather than sell them onto new homeowners or better landlords) is not borne out by the evidence. The UK has the worst protections for tenants in Western Europe, yet countries such as Germany and Switzerland have much tougher regulations and also have much larger private rented sectors.

The situation with the New Era estate would not be possible in either of these countries, and it is this European approach to the private rented sector that we should import. There are a number of policies that have been proposed that will go some way to achieving this, including statutory three year tenancies with predictable rent increases and ending no fault eviction. New Era shows why these are needed.

As for the Mayor, he needs to signal clearly to Westbrook that their grasping approach will be fought at every turn. He should consider whether there are any legal options for the GLA to issue a Compulsory Purchase Order for the estate, with a view to selling it on to a reputable social landlord. It is unlikely that Hackney council would be able to take such a step itself given the arbitrary cap the Coalition Government has imposed on council borrowing for housing.

But fundamentally, we need a new approach to the private rented sector. Call it a revolution or a new era for private tenants, we need a system that recognises that a tenants' house is their home, it shouldn't be a commodity ripe for profit hungry landlords.

Tom Copley AM is a Labour Londonwide Assembly Member

Tom Copley is a Labour member of the London Assembly

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"We repealed, then forgot": the long shadow of Section 28 homophobia

Why are deeply conservative views about the "promotion" of homosexuality still being reiterated to Scottish school pupils? 

Grim stories of LGBTI children being bullied in school are all too common. But one which emerged over the weekend garnered particular attention - because of the echoes of the infamous Section 28, nearly two decades after it was scrapped.

A 16-year-old pupil of a West Lothian school, who does not wish to be named, told Pink News that staff asked him to remove his small rainbow pride badge because, though they had "no problem" with his sexuality, it was not appropriate to "promote it" in school. It's a blast from the past - the rules against "promoting" homosexuality were repealed in 2000 in Scotland, but the long legacy of Section 28 seems hard to shake off. 

The local authority responsible said in a statement that non-school related badges are not permitted on uniforms, and says it is "committed to equal rights for LGBT people". 

The small badge depicted a rainbow-striped heart, which the pupil said he had brought back from the Edinburgh Pride march the previous weekend. He reportedly "no longer feels comfortable going to school", and said homophobia from staff members felt "much more scar[y] than when I encountered the same from other pupils". 

At a time when four Scottish party leaders are gay, and the new Westminster parliament included a record number of LGBTQ MPs, the political world is making progress in promoting equality. But education, it seems, has not kept up. According to research from LGBT rights campaigners Stonewall, 40 per cent of LGBT pupils across the UK reported being taught nothing about LGBT issues at school. Among trans students, 44 per cent said school staff didn’t know what "trans" even means.

The need for teacher training and curriculum reform is at the top of campaigners' agendas. "We're disappointed but not surprised by this example," says Jordan Daly, the co-founder of Time for Inclusive Education [TIE]. His grassroots campaign focuses on making politicians and wider society aware of the reality LGBTI school students in Scotland face. "We're in schools on a monthly basis, so we know this is by no means an isolated incident." 

Studies have repeatedly shown a startling level of self-harm and mental illness reported by LGBTI school students. Trans students are particularly at risk. In 2015, Daly and colleagues began a tour of schools. Shocking stories included one in which a teacher singled out a trans pupils for ridicule in front of the class. More commonly, though, staff told them the same story: we just don't know what we're allowed to say about gay relationships. 

This is the point, according to Daly - retraining, or rather the lack of it. For some of those teachers trained during the 1980s and 1990s, when Section 28 prevented local authorities from "promoting homosexuality", confusion still reigns about what they can and cannot teach - or even mention in front of their pupils. 

The infamous clause was specific in its homophobia: the "acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship" could not be mentioned in schools. But it's been 17 years since the clause was repealed in Scotland - indeed, it was one of the very first acts of the new Scottish Parliament (the rest of the UK followed suit three years later). Why are we still hearing this archaic language? 

"We repealed, we clapped and cheered, and then we just forgot," Daly says. After the bitter campaign in Scotland, in which an alliance of churches led by millionaire businessman Brian Souter poured money into "Keeping the Clause", the government was pleased with its victory, which seemed to establish Holyrood as a progressive political space early on in the life of the parliament. But without updating the curriculum or retraining teaching staff, Daly argues, it left a "massive vacuum" of uncertainty. 

The Stonewall research suggests a similar confusion is likely across the UK. Daly doesn't believe the situation in Scotland is notably worse than in England, and disputes the oft-cited allegation that the issue is somehow worse in Scotland's denominational schools. Homophobia may be "wrapped up in the language of religious belief" in certain schools, he says, but it's "just as much of a problem elsewhere. The TIE campaign doesn't have different strategies for different schools." 

After initial disappointments - their thousands-strong petition to change the curriculum was thrown out by parliament in 2016 - the campaign has won the support of leaders such as Nicola Sturgeon and Kezia Dugdale, and recently, the backing of a majority of MSPs. The Scottish government has set up a working group, and promised a national strategy. 

But for Daly, who himself struggled at a young age with his sexuality and society's failure to accept it, the matter remains an urgent one.  At just 21, he can reel off countless painful stories of young LGBTI students - some of which end in tragedy. One of the saddest elements of the story from St Kentigern's is that the pupil claimed his school was the safest place he had to express his identity, because he was not out at home. Perhaps for a gay pupil in ten years time, that will be a guarantee. 

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