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Could tax be the excuse to introduce national private rental licensing?

It’s not just the evenings drawing in that marks the approach of autumn - it’s also the return to work of our politicians. 

Parliament is back on September 5 and the party conferences begin shortly thereafter. Summer’s over, and the treadmill is starting again.

Too often in recent years that political treadmill has been running the private rental sector ragged: you don’t need me to itemise the fiscal and regulatory measures which have made it tougher and less profitable to be a landlord or a letting agent.


However, while trade bodies and even some politicians have spoken out against measures such as additional homes stamp duty and the phased reduction of mortgage interest tax relief, there may be one further measure that’s going to be very hard to oppose. 

It’s linked to this story on Letting Agent Today and Landlord Today over the summer: council officers in the London borough of Newham have worked with HMRC to identify landlords who, allegedly, had failed to register their buy to let income with tax authorities.  

Newham council used data from its landlord licensing system - widely regarded as one of the most comprehensive of any introduced by a local authority in recent years - to help HMRC compile a list of landlords who did not declare any or all of their income.

Politics lie at the heart of this, of course. Newham (an overwhelmingly Labour council) presumably came out over the summer about this because it is waiting on the government (Conservative) to agree its request to continue its extensive landlord licensing regime; helping the taxman is hardly something Theresa May’s team would oppose, surely?

However I wonder whether this Tory government - with a string of spending commitments to sweeten the Brexit pill, but lacking income to fund them all - might not see the Newham example as a model to extend across the whole country?

Would the Department of Communities and Local Government extend a licensing scheme across the UK, managed on the ground by local authorities who would then be expected to share data with HMRC with the objective of increasing the tax-take from the rental sector?

If that were to happen, it would arguably be almost impossible for the industry to object.

For while it’s easy to accuse the government of stifling the sector through the stamp duty surcharge or scrapping Wear and Tear allowance or making mortgages tougher to obtain via the Bank of England’s successive clampdowns, absolutely no trade body would put its head above the parapet and say “er...we object to landlords paying the tax they owe.”

Nor would the public have sympathy for an industry that quibbled at a system coming into place that would mean landlords were put on the spot to pay tax.

So this might just be a fiscal and political win-win for the government - and, of course, it is morally right that everyone in the private rental sector pays tax in full. 

But for letting agents, if not for landlords, there may be a clear upside. 

Industry data suggests around 50 per cent (or more) of landlords do not use agents; I’ve always reckoned this is because they are economical with the truth to the HMRC, and to offset agents’ fees against tax (as they could do) would mean letting the cat out of the bag.

Now if our increasingly Big Data society means councils and HMRC mix and match information over landlords, then that cat is roaming freely already - so more landlords might as well accept the game is over, and instruct letting agents anyway.

Fanciful thinking? Perhaps. 

But just because there has been a succession of measures against the private rental sector in recent years, don’t think the politicians are finished with us yet: the next few weeks, leading up to the autumn Budget, will be critical.

There may be more to come. Watch this space.

*Editor of Estate Agent Today and Letting Agent Today, Graham can be found tweeting all things property @PropertyJourn


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