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

Photo: Getty Images
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The Fire Brigades Union reaffiliates to Labour - what does it mean?

Any union rejoining Labour will be welcomed by most in the party - but the impact on the party's internal politics will be smaller than you think.

The Fire Brigades Union (FBU) has voted to reaffiliate to the Labour party, in what is seen as a boost to Jeremy Corbyn. What does it mean for Labour’s internal politics?

Firstly, technically, the FBU has never affliated before as they are notionally part of the civil service - however, following the firefighters' strike in 2004, they decisively broke with Labour.

The main impact will be felt on the floor of Labour party conference. Although the FBU’s membership – at around 38,000 – is too small to have a material effect on the outcome of votes themselves, it will change the tenor of the motions put before party conference.

The FBU’s leadership is not only to the left of most unions in the Trades Union Congress (TUC), it is more inclined to bring motions relating to foreign affairs than other unions with similar politics (it is more internationalist in focus than, say, the PCS, another union that may affiliate due to Corbyn’s leadership). Motions on Israel/Palestine, the nuclear deterrent, and other issues, will find more support from FBU delegates than it has from other affiliated trade unions.

In terms of the balance of power between the affiliated unions themselves, the FBU’s re-entry into Labour politics is unlikely to be much of a gamechanger. Trade union positions, elected by trade union delegates at conference, are unlikely to be moved leftwards by the reaffiliation of the FBU. Unite, the GMB, Unison and Usdaw are all large enough to all-but-guarantee themselves a seat around the NEC. Community, a small centrist union, has already lost its place on the NEC in favour of the bakers’ union, which is more aligned to Tom Watson than Jeremy Corbyn.

Matt Wrack, the FBU’s General Secretary, will be a genuine ally to Corbyn and John McDonnell. Len McCluskey and Dave Prentis were both bounced into endorsing Corbyn by their executives and did so less than wholeheartedly. Tim Roache, the newly-elected General Secretary of the GMB, has publicly supported Corbyn but is seen as a more moderate voice at the TUC. Only Dave Ward of the Communication Workers’ Union, who lent staff and resources to both Corbyn’s campaign team and to the parliamentary staff of Corbyn and McDonnell, is truly on side.

The impact of reaffiliation may be felt more keenly in local parties. The FBU’s membership looks small in real terms compared Unite and Unison have memberships of over a million, while the GMB and Usdaw are around the half-a-million mark, but is much more impressive when you consider that there are just 48,000 firefighters in Britain. This may make them more likely to participate in internal elections than other affiliated trade unionists, just 60,000 of whom voted in the Labour leadership election in 2015. However, it is worth noting that it is statistically unlikely most firefighters are Corbynites - those that are will mostly have already joined themselves. The affiliation, while a morale boost for many in the Labour party, is unlikely to prove as significant to the direction of the party as the outcome of Unison’s general secretary election or the struggle for power at the top of Unite in 2018. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.