Remember the war on drugs? Started by Nixon in the early 70s, when he declared drug abuse to be ‘public enemy number one,’ it costs at least $500 million per year to prosecute, has involved actual armies deployed overseas, riots, and countless deaths – not to mention some stunning Netflix original series, and of course Miami Vice.
After nearly five decades, it’s fair to say that drugs won. Columbia and Afghanistan are still exporting their number one cash crops, cannabis is legal throughout Canada, and even sort of legal in the US.
In the meantime, we have spice zombies on the streets of Wakefield, an ongoing prescription opioid overdose epidemic across the Atlantic, and most recently, ‘monkey dust,’ which is causing users to run out into traffic.
The war on letting fees – and the war on landlords in general – is kind of like that.
We’re not comparing landlords to drug lords – except in so far as many people depend on them utterly, end up paying huge sums, and they have the capability to utterly destroy lives.
What we’re talking about is the piecemeal legislation which is expensive to implement, helps no-one, drives problems underground, and ultimately has no beneficial effect on society.
Take, for example, The Tenants Bill, which was introduced to parliament in May 2018, and caps deposits at of six weeks’ rent, limits tenancy fees to £50, and scraps letting fees altogether.
Sounds great for tenants, right?
Wrong. According to people who are paid to know about these things, tenants will end up having to pay even more as a result of the changes.
Polly Neate, of the homeless charity, Shelter, says that landlords routinely charge (and massively overcharge) tenants for unjustifiable trifles. Speaking to the BBC, she quoted examples of “£45 for procuring a replacement dustpan and brush – and even £100 for removing cobwebs.”
I’m sure we can all agree that neither of the examples Ms Neate gave are in any way reasonable, but they’re not covered by The Tenants Bill. And with letting agents and landlords losing money through the new restrictions on letting fees, it’s likely that more and more spurious charges will be made so they can make up the difference.
We’re sure the government could make regulations specifically targeting these particular types of exploitative charges, but that would take years of consultations, focus groups, and actually finding the time to push it through parliament.
It’s like the war on drugs. Back in the day, each new narcotic was banned or regulated on its individual merits and hazards – after a lengthy process of campaigning and consultation. Opiates and Cocaine started being regulated in the 1920s. Cannabis a little later. In the 1960s, LSD and amphetamines were criminalised, while MDMA, or ecstasy, was added to the class A schedule in 1977.
Exhausting, and an awful lot of legislative time was wasted – until 2016, when HMG finally got round to declaring illegal everything and anything which could possibly have a psychoactive effect, until it could be exhaustively tested, found safe, and licensed. That’s an awful lot of time and effort saved.
After that brief detour, let’s go back to the private rental sector, and the onslaught of regulations, bans, safety checks, and licensing rules about which everyone is bitching.
Currently, the government is attacking issues around unscrupulous landlords one at a time – introducing rules which are easy to circumvent, and tackling each and every issue after exhaustive and comprehensive debate.
And there’s always something new. Some way of getting around the regulations as soon as they’re introduced.
Sooner or later, the government (sooner if it’s a Labour government) is going to realise that they’re wasting their time, and that a better, more efficient approach is needed.
We already have a landlord licensing scheme rolling out across the country. It’s coming in dribs and drabs, but within a few years, it will be everywhere. And when that promised day comes, it may well be up to property owners to prove that they are or will be good landlords, and to prove that they’re not attempting to scalp their tenants with ridiculous and unjustifiable fees. To prove that they’re not going to pressure single mums into sex if they’re late on their rent.
Private landlords occupy a position of power over 11.5 million people in England alone. Many of those tenants are victims of their landlords’ exploitative, borderline illegal practices – and who may, possibly, perhaps be awarded the right to sue their exploiters under certain conditions.
But it’s not enough.