If a week is a long time in politics (an old phrase, for younger readers), then a year is a very long time in the agency industry, especially if it includes a life-changing pandemic.
So perhaps it’s not such a surprise that a year ago, when the Regulation of Property Agents working party came out with 30-plus recommendations to transform the estate agency industry once and for all, there was a fairly broad consensus welcoming its proposals for licensing, training and beefed-up regulation.
And now, as its recommendations begin to be acted upon, there’s much less enthusiasm.
Although some criticism comes from people who oppose almost everything and anything, I’ve been struck at how many of those less shrill voices, once in favour of more transparent regulation, have become distinctly lukewarm.
Their disenchantment appears to have five strands.
Firstly, difficult timing: the current uncertainty in the housing market and wider economy almost defy description, and it’s difficult to imagine any stability in the next 12 months. The end of furlough, the end of the Brexit transition process, a deep recession and the start of a possible second wave of Coronavirus combine to be more than enough for our industry to worry about, many say.
Secondly, bad process: veteran former agent Ed Mead may have hit the nail on the head when, in a Twitter video, he expressed concern that the cast list deciding on RoPA’s new code of conduct was too large. It runs to 18 individuals plus an unspecified number of civil servants. Mead said he’d prefer two or three people making decisions, and it’s hard to deny that such a streamlined process would be quicker and more decisive.
Thirdly, too much consultation: for too long this has long been the response of governments when there’s a problem - to consult rather than act. Although the latest consultation, on the code of conduct, is only six weeks long, is it really going to provide more insight than the two years of talks at the Regulation of Property Agents working party? And how long will consultation take on training? And then on agent licensing? And after that, on the scope of a new regulator?
Fourth, poor resources: one journalist claims to have seen evidence that the number of civil servants working on some housing issues at the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government has been reduced from 30 to three, with the rest switched to issues surrounding Coronavirus. Little wonder, then, that it’s taken a year since the RoPA report to even reach this stage, of the first of its recommendations being acted upon. How long will the rest of the RoPA reforms take to even be discussed, let alone implemented?
And fifth, wrong people: the relationship between ‘leaders’ and the rank and file is almost inevitably difficult in every industry, even at periods of great stability. So in these more tumultuous times, it’s unsurprising that many agents (privately, if not publicly) are critical about several of the individuals and groups involved in the code of conduct deliberations. Many of the names seem to be permanent committee members on one subject or another.
And yet, and yet. Something has to be done.
It’s worth remembering that in perhaps a year’s time, when Coronavirus subsides further and more mundane issues return to prominence, it’s highly likely that the public’s critical view of estate agents will gain traction once more.
In other words, the issues identified 12 months ago in the RoPA report won’t have gone away for good, even if they seem less important today.
How should the industry address those problems? What would be quicker and more efficient than the fortnighly-meetings-with-biscuits that appear to be planned?
There has to be a better way: but what is it?
*Editor of Estate Agent Today and Letting Agent Today, Graham can be found tweeting about all things property at @PropertyJourn