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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Despite new challengers, Andrew Marr is still the king of the Sunday-morning politics skirmish

The year began with a strong challenge from Sophy Ridge, who scored a coup with her Theresa May interview. By week two, though, the normal order was restored.

The BBC can declare at least one victory for its news division in 2017. In what was dubbed “the battle of the bongs”, ITV’s regrettable decision to shift the News at Ten to 10.30pm for a couple of months this year in favour of a new entertainment show means that the corporation’s flagship bulletin will be once more unchallenged. But the war among the UK’s television channels has shifted to new territory: now it’s Sunday-morning sofa skirmishes.

This year began with the equivalent of ravens leaving the Tower. The Prime Minister’s New Year interview, cherished for decades by David Frost and then by Andrew Marr, migrated from the BBC to Sky News. It was a coup for Sophy Ridge, whose new show marks the arrival of a woman into what had previously been male territory. It intensified the pressure on the BBC after the blow last year of the defection of Robert Peston to ITV, lured by the promise of his own show to rival Marr’s.

By week two, though, the normal order was restored. The biggest interviewee, Jeremy Corbyn, was on The Andrew Marr Show and his lieutenants John McDonnell and Emily Thornberry were deployed on Sky and ITV. These things matter because the Sunday-morning political programmes often generate the headlines for the rest of the day’s broadcasting and for the Monday papers; and the commercial companies want to dent the BBC’s reputation for setting the agenda. The corporation can often do it by the sheer volume of its output on TV, including the estimable Sunday Politics, and on radio; but it’s a plus for audiences if other voices can be heard.

The Andrew Marr Show has traditionally secured the A-list guests because it has by far the highest ratings. Its most powerful asset is Marr, who was a transformative political editor for the BBC and possesses, as New Statesman readers know, an original and free-thinking take on the issues of the day. The energy in the programme comes from him but he is not helped by a staid production: a predictable format, a set with a London skyline and a superannuated sofa. There aren’t many laughs. The review of the papers has become cumbersome with the addition of a statutory Brexiteer, and the supposed light relief is supplied by arts plugging of the kind that seems mandatory in every BBC News programme. We are invited, wherever we are in the UK, to pop along to the West End to see the latest production involving the actor-interviewee of the day. However, if there is a new political line to be found, Marr is the most likely to sniff it out.

By contrast, Peston on Sunday seems to have consumed a lot of fizzy drinks. It is sharp and contemporary-looking and it bounces along, thanks to the interplay between Peston and his sidekick, Allegra Stratton. It is more willing to take risks, as in the entertainingly acidic recent exchanges between Piers Morgan and Alastair Campbell, and it works as a piece of television even if it doesn’t have the top guests. It merits its repeat in the evening, when it gains a bigger audience than in the live transmission.

Guests may be more crucial to the success of Sophy Ridge on Sunday. It looks lovely in its sparkling new studio, but the prime ministerial scoop of the launch show was followed by an interview with Nigel Farage and a dull encounter with a union official. There is a commendable attempt to get out of London and to hear from the public, and it’s refreshing to locate an MP such as Tom Watson in a West Bromwich café. The programme is also trying to book more women interviewees, and one paper review featured a token man; but can it be a must-watch for news junkies or entertaining enough for a casual viewer?

There is only so much that producers can do to lure the right guests. If you meet any broadcaster these days, they immediately gripe about the attempts by Downing Street to control who appears where – which has been applied with particular vigour under the May administration: hence Boris Johnson recently appearing as duty minister on both Marr and Peston on the same morning, which neither channel finds ideal.

There is a trap, in that obtaining quotesfor the rest of the media is only part of the remit. In these uncertain political times, audiences need knowledge, too, and an interview that merely zips through the news lines of the day may add little to our understanding of policy and the choices faced by government. All of these shows feature presenters with formidable brainpower and it is perfectly possible to meld that into a programme that is worth watching.

Peston’s show makes an attempt with Stratton’s big screen to provide context and statistics, but it could do more – and it might painlessly lose some of the witless tweets that pass for interaction. It’s a further conundrum of television that Marr’s most interesting takes on current issues are often in his documentaries or writing rather than on his eponymous show. The guardians of impartiality may twitch, but viewers would benefit from him being given more freedom.

There is the rest of the world to consider, too. It was striking on a Sunday just ahead of the inauguration of Donald Trump that none of these shows had a major American player. While Michel Barnier was making the news in the weekend papers, no decision-maker from the EU was featured, either. This is not a phenomenon of Brexit: television has always found it easier to plonk a bottom on a sofa in SW1 than to engage in the long-term wooing that gets significant international guests. Yet, as we are allegedly preparing to launch ourselves into the wider world, hearing from its key decision-makers is part of the enlightenment we need, too.

Roger Mosey is the master of Selwyn College, Cambridge, and a former head of BBC Television news

Roger Mosey is the Master of Selwyn College, Cambridge. He was formerly editorial director and the director of London 2012 at the BBC.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era