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

Richard Burden
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The warnings Bosnian gravestones carry for us in 2016

Xenophobia does not usually lead to Srebrenica. But it can do.

Two weeks ago, I joined a visit to Bosnia organised by Remember Srebrenica. If you have ever seen one of the Commonwealth War Graves cemeteries in Northern France, you will have a sense of what the cemetery in Potocari, near Srebrenica, is like. Row upon row of identical white headstones stretching into the distance. Whereas in France, of course, most of the headstones are marked by the cross, in Potocari they are white obelisks. Overwhelmingly, they mark the graves of Muslims.

In the 1990s, the old battery factory of Potocari was the headquarters of Dutch troops. They had been deployed to uphold the United Nations designation of the enclave as a safe area. Their presence, however, did not stop Serb troops from rounding up around 25,000 people sheltering at the base in July 1995. Once the UN troops stood aside, families were divided. Most of the women and children were loaded and sent west to areas of the country still controlled by the Bosnian government. The men and boys were loaded on to separate trucks. Within days, most of them were systematically shot.

Many other men and boys had already taken to the woods to escape, only to face shells, snipers and ambush on the way. Some, like 19-year-old Hasan Hasanovic, made it through to free territory around Tuzla. Many did not. Those did not die in the woods were either persuaded to give themselves up, or were captured. Like the men and boys who had been taken from outside the UN base at Potocari, most simply disappeared. To this day, their bones are still being found in or near mass graves in eastern Bosnia.

And so, 21 years on, I met Hasan at Potocari. July1995 was the last time he saw his twin brother Hussein, his father Aziz or his uncle, Hasan.

The former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan described the Srebrenica massacre as the worst crime on European soil since the Second World War. Indeed, the word massacre doesn’t convey the enormity of what happened. Earlier this year, the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia found 1990s Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic guilty of involvement in genocide. The verdict in the trial of military leader Ratko Mladic is expected later this year.

Nobody who visits Potocari can fail to be moved by what you see there. For me, it brought back memories of how, as a new MP back in the 1990s, I was one of those calling for more assertive international action to stop the carnage that was unfolding in Bosnia. It was an unfamiliar position to find myself in. All my political life until that point, I had been amongst those opposing involvement in military action abroad. Now I found myself supporting intervention. For three years before the Srebrenica genocide, people in Sarajevo had been starved of food, medicines and even the means to defend themselves as their city was remorselessly pounded from the hills that surround it. We knew it. We could see it on TV. We also saw that neither Europe nor NATO nor the UN were taking action that could have stopped it.

There were always so many geopolitical reasons not to intervene effectively. I heard them day after day from Ministers in the House of Commons. But that did not help the men, women and children who were dying in Sarajevo, and in 1995 it did not save Hasan’s twin brother, his father, his uncle or the 8,000 others who ended up in the mass graves around Srebrenica.

Since I have returned from Bosnia, two things keep dominating my thinking. The first is about Syria. The political circumstances that have led to the destruction of Aleppo today are not the same as those facing Sarajevo in the 1990s. For people trapped there though, the parallels must feel much more real than the differences. I don’t claim to have an off-the-shelf action plan for what the international community should do today any more than anyone else does. I just keep thinking how in twenty years’ time, people visiting Aleppo - hopefully reconstructed as Sarajevo has been today - will ask: “How could the world have let this happen in 2016?” What will be our answer?

The other thing that dominates my thoughts is that the genocide in Bosnia hit people like me. A man I met, who unexpectedly found himself becoming a soldier in 1992, told me how, before the war, he wore a t-shirt, jeans and an earring. On a good day, he would to listen to the Ramones. On a bad day, it would be the Sex Pistols. I am a bit older than him, but this was still my generation. And it happened In Europe.

What is more, the murders and the ethnic cleansing were not committed by strangers. So often, they were committed by neighbours. These were normal people who had been whipped up to dehumanise those who they were told were “different”. They were told that their way of life was under threat. They internalised it. They believed it. And, down the line, they no longer needed persuading it was “them or us”.

Most of the time, xenophobia does not lead to the horrors that have scarred Srebrenica forever. But it can do. That a lesson for all of us must never forget. So next time you hear someone talking about people living either down the road or across the sea being "them" not "us", don't shrug and walk away. Speak up and speak out instead.

Richard Burden is Labour MP for Birmingham Northfield and a Shadow Transport Minister. He visited Bosnia with the Remembering Srebrenica charity in October 2016. You can find out more about the Remembering Srebrenica charity here.

Richard Burden is MP for Birmingham Northfield. Follow him on Twitter @RichardBurdenMP.