Selective landlord licensing – the devil in the detail

detritus07:21 Thursday 21st January 2016
BBC Radio Cambridgeshire

DOTTY MCLEOD: Peterborough has been reviewing the results of a consultation on whether to charge landlords in parts of the city hundreds of pounds to license their properties. It was an attempt to crack down on anti-social behaviour and unscrupulous landlords, but it proved controversial and provoked allegations of racism when the Council carried out a consultation on the scheme back in 2013. The scheme was deferred again in September last year, only a week after it was put back on the table, and then re-introduced again a month later in October 2015. My producer Dave Webster joins me now. So Dave, how was this scheme actually going to work?
DAVE WEBSTER: Well it’s called selective landlord licensing, and initially it was only going to apply, or it wasn’t going to apply to all landlords in Peterborough, just the ones that have problems in the Gladstone, Millfield, New England and Eastfield areas. Now landlords would have to fill out a form registering the property, that’s for an initial five year period. There was going to be a fee, around about £600, but after consultation with various associations and letting agents, that was dropped to £50. Detractors claimed it was racist, unfairly targeting Asian landlords, who are prevalent in the target area. It would mean additional costs would be passed on to tenants.
DOTTY MCLEOD: And so why was it thought that a scheme like this was needed?
DAVE WEBSTER: Well in short it was designed to try to improve areas of the city to deal with anti-social behaviour, poor quality rental homes and criminal landlords. They’ve been introduced by other councils already. The Government gave the local authorities the power to introduce these licences back in 2006. For example, they’ve had a scheme running in Margate for the last five years. They’ve prosecuted twenty landlords who hadn’t applied for a licence, the maximum fine being £20,000.
DOTTY MCLEOD: And since 2013, this has been a bit of an hokey cokey of a Council policy in that it’s been in, it’s been out, it’s been suggested, it’s been deferred. What’s happened now?
DAVE WEBSTER: Yes. A highly controversial policy. For example landlords queried why the scheme was only proposed for one part of the city, and not make it pan-city wide. back in September last year we reported that councillor Peter Hiller made the decision to defer the scheme. He’s the Council’s Cabinet member for Growth, Planning, Housing and Economic Development. Now in a statement he said that a change to Government legislation in April meant that the Council now required approval from the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government to introduce selective licensing into the target area. So the story is not over yet Dotty. It needs to be signed off by the Secretary of State if the target area contains more than 20% of privately rented homes in the entire area controlled by the Council, which in this case it did. So then a month later in October last year it was put back on the table would you believe it. The aspiration is it will change the quality of life for private tenants. .. Lisa Forbes is the Chair of the Peterborough City Council’s Scrutiny Committee, which met last night to talk about these plans. Morning Lisa.

LISA FORBES: Good morning Dotty.
DOTTY MCLEOD: So what was discussed last night at this meeting?
LISA FORBES: Well as you say it’s quite a controversial policy. What was mainly discussed last night was the consultation that’s been happening around the policy itself. I think councillors at the moment are really more pleased with this policy than we’ve been with the policies in the past, because it’s an evidence-based policy. And as your reporter alluded to, it looks at things like criminal activity, anti-social behaviour, overcrowded housing, and actually covers more of the city than it did before.
DOTTY MCLEOD: So when you say evidence-based Lisa, what kind of evidence do you have about dodgy landlords in Peterborough?
LISA FORBES: Well Council officers produced the evidence to the Scrutiny Committee in the report we saw last night. So it was evidenced on things like criminal activity and overcrowding, and the police and the Council have all that information that they gave to us last night.
DOTTY MCLEOD: And how confident are you that a licensing scheme like this would actually help solve those problems?
LISA FORBES: Well we sought assurances last night that the policy itself won’t lead to things like homelessness as a result, and we were given assurances that it wouldn’t. And also quite a lot of people were concerned that we’d get displacement. So in areas where we don’t have selective licensing, that the problem would just move out of the areas where we do have the licensing into the areas where we don’t. And so Council officers gave us assurances that they would be keeping a close eye on those things to make sure that doesn’t happen.
DOTTY MCLEOD: And do you think this scheme would be a good thing for Peterborough?
LISA FORBES: Personally I would prefer to see a city-wide scheme, but current legislation doesn’t actually allow for that. So what we’ve got at the moment is the next best thing really, and it does cover a lot more of the city than it previously did. So we’re looking at about 38% of all private rented stock now as opposed to I think it was just below 20% before.
DOTTY MCLEOD: OK Lisa, thank you for your time this morning. Let’s have a word with Steve Tierney, who is a Wisbech town and Fenland district councillor. A similar scheme to what’s been proposed in Peterborough has now been proposed to cover the Fenland area, or parts of the Fenland area. Steve, do you think it’s a good idea?
STEVE TIERNEY: Well it has the ability to be a good idea, but I’ve got to tell you I don’t think that the policy as proposed at the moment actually will solve many of the problems that it seeks to solve.
DOTTY MCLEOD: What’s wrong with it then?
STEVE TIERNEY: It’s just not very well written to be honest with you, in my opinion. I’ve had a good look at it. It’s going straight to Cabinet and then possibly straight to consultation. And I think we’ve missed a trick here, because there are some good ideas in there, and we do have genuine problems with some of the landlords in the areas that are proposed. So it would have been nice to have a look at it. I think if we’d have perhaps taken it through Scrutiny with a Task and Finish group and some local expertise in the trade brought in, we might have been able to actually come up with a policy here that did some good. But I think what’s being proposed is unlikely to solve the problems it sets out to and actually may make some of the problems worse.
DOTTY MCLEOD: Why is that? Just drill down into that a little bit more. Do you worry that the motion or the policy as it’s written at the moment, does it leave loopholes open or what?
STEVE TIERNEY: It puts a lot of additional bureaucracy, responsibility and cost onto landlords. And you’ve got to remember there are some bad landlords. Any council will tell you that you get called in to deal with some very difficult landlords. But the vast majority of landlords are not like that. And it puts a lot of additional bureaucracy and burdens upon them, and those costs. And the costs that they’re affecting, the standard laws of supply and demand say will be then passed on to the customer. So you get a situation where I think elsewhere in the country people have dubbed this the Tenants Tax, and the reason being although that’s quite simplistic, that it will increase rents. And that will mean that there’s less supply, which means that it just makes everything worse. There’s not as much housing to go round. Some landlords will withdraw from the scheme, be driven out by the competition. Some of them will have to put their rent up. And all of these things don’t solve the problem, but actually make the problem of the housing situation worse.
DOTTY MCLEOD: Steve, really interesting to talk to you. Thank you for your time this morning. Steve Tierney there, who is a Wisbech town and Fenland district councillor. And earlier on you heard from Lisa Forbes, who’s the Chair of the Peterborough City Council’s Scrutiny Committee which met last night.