Lime Legal

The gentle touch?

Published 12 January 2024

Are government plans for a landlord register enough to protect tenants or should landlords be left to get on with it? ROOF reports from this year’s conference on private renting

In a surprising show of unanimity, tenants’, landlords’ and letting agents’ representatives reached consensus over the thorny issue of landlord registration, at this year’s ROOF conference.

During a centrepiece debate on whether or not government plans to register private landlords go far enough, speakers agreed that the main concern was a lack of enforcement that rendered legislation designed to protect tenants toothless.

Chairing the debate, Jacky Peacock from Brent Private Tenants’ Rights Group, summed up the sentiment saying:

‘Regardless of whether or not you think that light touch is the way forward, the issue we all share is that we are reliant on those who are meant to enforce regulation. That is the missing piece and it’s the reason why HMO licensing and energy performance certificates have been so ineffective.’

Kicking off the debate, Sussanne Chambers, board director of the National Landlords Association, defended light touch regulation saying: ‘There are already many pieces of legislation to govern private renting. What we need are fewer new proposals and greater enforcement of the legislation that already exists.’

Never had it so good

Chambers argued that proposals for a national register of landlords went far enough and that ‘tenants in privately-rented accommodation have never had it so good’.

Cue much sucking of teeth from fellow panel member Penny Anderson, a private tenant and journalist, who declared herself ‘intrigued by this assertion’.

‘Too often, tenants are treated like an infestation while rented properties are treated like delicate, house-shaped piggy banks. When I asked tenants in the block I used to live in how they found it, I got an onslaught about how bad the landlord was and how terrible conditions were. Something is going wrong if tenants are that unhappy.’

Audience member Robert Taylor concurred: ‘As a private tenant, I don’t feel more protected than I ever have been – in fact, I feel more vulnerable. As tenants we are only two months away from potentially losing our homes.’

Sussanne Chambers’ views on the benefits of light touch were echoed by Ian Potter, operations manager of the Association of Residential Letting Agents. Defending the assertion that government plans to register landlords go far enough, Potter said: ‘We already have lots of badly drafted, badly enforced legislation. So why give us more?’

He accepted that many landlords don’t know their responsibilities but added that greater ignorance lay in the policing of the regulations currently in place.

‘We have lots of legislation that is just not enforced. It has to be made meaningful and there is absolutely no point in creating heavy touch regulation if we are not making what we’ve already got work.’

Potter dismissed energy performance certificates as ‘more daft regulation’ and was scathing about the furniture and furnishings fire safety regulations. ‘What enforcement is there unless someone dies? Many HMOs that have licenses were unfurnished when they were inspected and we have no idea what’s in them now.’

On tenancy deposit protection, he said that the scheme missed those who needed protection the most. ‘Government in its total ignorance left out a huge proportion of the most vulnerable tenants because it stuck to the assured shorthold tenancy threshold of £25,000 which takes the majority of student lets and all HMOs out of tenancy deposit protection. It’s badly drafted legislation. All it needs is one or two minor tweaks and it could be made to work.’

Similarly, gas safety certificates were ineffective, he said, and enforcement – actively chased-up when they were first introduced in the 1990s – had tailed off. ‘My members haven’t told me of being visited once in the past 10 years at least.’

Only show in town

However Potter saved particular scorn for ‘the joker in the pack’ – the housing health and safety rating system – about which ‘nothing has been done to make work.’

Speaking against the motion that light touch regulation is sufficient, Bill Randall, leader of the Green group of councillors at Brighton and Hove and housing journalist said it was just a starting point.

‘It’s very important that the licensing system for landlords should be rigorous. You need a licence to clip a poodle in this country but you don’t need a licence – unless you’ve got an HMO – to be a landlord. It’s ludicrous. There should be standards for landlords that they have to meet to get a licence and those standards should be enforced rigorously.

‘The private rented sector is the only show in town for many people. There is virtually no new social housing and it’s important that we have a well protected and well managed private rented sector that provides a reasonable income for landlords, and that doesn’t exploit the people who live in it.’

Also speaking against the motion, Penny Anderson added: ‘I see light touch as an admission of defeat, as a way of allowing slippery landlords to slide through the net. I would like to see bad landlords lose their property and it be forcibly handed over to someone else to manage if they transgress serious rules.’

There was much disagreement about government proposals for a registration scheme that would require all landlord
to list their name, address and the
addresses of all their properties on a
publicly accessible database.

‘I don’t want my name on a list and I don’t want people to know how many homes I own,’ said Sussanne Chambers. ‘For many landlords, this is overly intrusive. It’s private information and I think that access to it should be incredibly limited.’

She argued that such a scheme would be bureaucratic and hard to keep up-dated. ‘Landlords are regularly changing the composition of their portfolios and this churn – currently around 15 per cent – would render the register continually out of date.’

She also said it could dissuade institutional investors from entering the sector and encourage big landlords to leave their properties empty, to avoid registration.

A more acceptable scheme she suggested would be one similar to the TV licence, as proposed by Julie Rugg. ‘A TV licence holder doesn’t have to submit the number of TVs they have and in which rooms they keep them,’ said Chambers.

However, both Penny Anderson and Bill Randall called for more stringent registration. Bill Randall said: ‘A register of landlords is absolutely critical – it should list properties as well as the name and address of landlords. I can’t imagine that landlords don’t keep lists of their properties for other purposes, so what is to prevent them from simply transferring that information on to a list that others can look at?’

During questions from the floor, Thomas Crawshaw, senior policy officer at Shelter, agreed that a register of addresses was ‘a key part of landlord registration and a vital tool to enforce legislation’.

Bottom of the heap

Robert Taylor said: ‘I would go one step further. Regulation would have real value if it recorded criminal records that landlords might have in relation to their duties as landlords – not as an individual.’

Taylor added that the registration issue masked a more fundamental problem with the way renting is perceived in this country. ‘The only way we’ll ever deal with the problems that afflict private renting is if we move away from the idea that if you rent, you are somehow a social misfit.’

Penny Anderson agreed, adding that
the inequality in the tenant landlord relationship needed to be tackled before real progress could be made in making private renting more equitable for tenants. ‘It’s much more difficult to do something about a landlord if you’re a tenant and no matter what rights I have, if I try to enforce them, I can be turfed out. I’m sick of living like this.’

Summing up the debate, Jacky Peacock, said the challenge was how we now implement the kind of regulatory framework capable of fostering good relations between landlords and tenants and balance the relationship between the two groups.

‘We are still talking about a very uneven association and tenants don’t have the right to negotiate in any meaningful sense. Regulation is absolutely key and there couldn’t be a better time to lobby politicians for change than the run up to an election.’