It’s time, surely, for government to crackdown not just on rogue agents and landlords but on rogue councils that confuse the public over the private rental sector.
At the moment, there are reasonably clear national guidelines (well, national usually to England, with narrow differences in Wales and Scotland) over many rental issues: for example, there are nationally-agreed definitions of HMOs, an England-wide ban on levying fees on tenants, and national requirements for agents to be in redress schemes.
But in addition there are three areas with few or no national standards - and as a result, local councils are making a pig’s ear of them.
The first is licensing: while definitions of selective and additional licensing are uniform across the country, the decision whether to operate such licensing in any one area lies largely with the council. As a result, some councils have lots of streets that require licensing, some others have a few, and a handful of councils have none at all.
If licensing is a way of improving rental standards and reducing anti-social behaviour (as councils claim) why is it not in force in every council area?
Or looked at from the other direction, if the government has seen fit not to make it mandatory (at a time when it’s made many other standards subject to law) why are councils al-lowed to have any licensing on such a piecemeal basis?
The second area where councils appear to be worsening, not improving, the private rental sector concerns attention-grabbing one-off ‘rental standards’.
We’ve seen this recently in Conservative-controlled Teignbridge in Devon, which - in addition to licensing landlords - is grading agents ranging from bronze to platinum. Absurdly it says Bronze means the agent meeting all current letting-related legislation so there’s no classification that exposes the really bad agent: and then there are three MORE levels of grading above Bronze. Confused? I know I am.
Move to Labour-controlled Bristol and the council backs a West Of England Rental Standard, again with highly-specific criteria as to what does or does not meet the standard. A minority of other councils across the south west also promote this ‘Standard’ while the majority of course do not. More confusion follows.
You can almost hear the discussion that’s gone on by individual councillors and political groups behind these local ideas, hoping they will win the support of the sought-after votes from the under 35s in particular. But here are the vital questions…
How does a landlord new to buy-to-let actually know what standard exists in their area? Is there licensing or not? Are there additional local schemes or not? Is their letting agent to be compulsorily in ARLA or not? Are they a Platinum or a Bronze or a Standard or what?
The same applies to tenants: one moving from Plymouth to Penrith would be absolutely lost as to the quality they should expect in the service from a landlord or an agent because there’s no uniform standard, despite this flurry of local initiatives.
Which brings me to the third area where councils serve to confuse rather than enlighten users of the rental sector - enforcement.
There’s a genuine argument that councils are cash-strapped, yet even so some prioritise enforcement of private rental sector standards while many choose not to.
So Newham and Tower Hamlets are two local authorities in London that have put time and money into enforcing better private rental standards, vigorously pursuing rogue landlords and letting agents, and they have won broad support from the industry for this.
Yet a recent Local Government Chronicle written by John Stewart of the Residential Landlords Association says over two-thirds of councils across England and Wales undertook no prosecutions against private landlords in 2018 (and that applied to 42 per cent of those with licensing schemes.)
So even if an agent, landlord or tenant understands the blizzard of local licensing initiatives, such rules could be flouted because of a lack of political will to enforce them.
Contrast this confusion with, for example, the centralised legislation that applies to planning consent or building regulations.
Councils have relatively few rights for local variations: what needs planning permission in Penzance needs planning permission in Portsmouth, too. Councils have the right to identify different parts of their patches for development - but they can’t conjure up additional local planning controls on top of national ones and confuse applicants in the pro-cess.
Isn’t it time that national government recognised the importance of the private rental sector and stopped indulging local councils and their ill-thought out measures, and instead introduced national (and policed) rental standards so everyone knew where they stood?
If that’s good enough for planners and developers, it should be good enough for landlords and tenants too
*Editor of Estate Agent Today and Letting Agent Today, Graham can be found tweeting all things property @PropertyJourn