Selective Landlord Licensing and the Localism Agenda

David Lawrenson of says that the move to “localism” is leading many town halls to make some very bad decisions about the private rented sector.

One of the obvious consequences of the Coalition’s liking of “localism” is that it gives more control to the local authorities.

But the localism agenda can be a problem for the private rented sector (PRS) and for private landlords because in some town halls this is producing some rather odd and often, very ill thought out policy.

David Salusbury, the Chairman of the National Landlords Association, recently wrote about there being “something of a lack of expertise about the PRS among local government officers”. (NLA Magazine March/ April 2012)

I think he is right. In the course of our consulting work, I’d guesstimate that less than 5 per cent of council staff with a responsibility for the PRS is a landlord themselves.

Despite this, at the town halls, those whose jobs are at the very sharp end of having to struggle with the implications of the government’s policies on Local Housing Allowance, Article 4 Directions and the like, actually do their best to understand what the private rented sector wants. (Where these good souls really lack expertise is in understanding how to promote their schemes to private landlords, but that is another story.)

Senior Executives at Town Halls and Councillors Don’t Understand the PRS

But all too often, the good intentions of these front line operatives are thwarted by Councillors and senior executives, whose grasp of the private rented sector and how best to harness its potential can be very limited and often discoloured by a tendency to assume that all landlords are like the ones who tend to feature on shock TV programmes about the sector.

For some councillors there may also be something of a desire to be seen to be “leading the way” in order to earn favour with their respective party leaders at Whitehall.

Some senior politicians also lack understanding. For example, Green London Mayor candidate Jenny Jones and Labour’s candidate, Ken Livingstone both say they want landlords to issue longer term tenancies. (The original call for this was made in “Bleak Houses”, which was a report on the PRS by the London Assembly.)

They have both failed to realise that about four tenths of landlords would like to issue them too but are constrained by mortgage lenders terms and conditions which preclude landlords from doing so. (Their issue should be with the Council of Mortgage Lenders, not private landlords.)

Selective Licensing

With the “Localism Wind” at their backs, some councils around the land are moving towards implementing local selective licensing schemes for all landlords in their patch in the belief that these will somehow help curb tenants’ behaviour in areas where antisocial behaviour is a problem.

But in all my days as a commentator and expert on the private rented sector I have yet to meet a single landlord who actually wants to have antisocial tenants at their properties. Most want rid of these types of tenant as soon as possible, but are often stymied by judges who can (depending on the case) refuse to issue possession orders for low level antisocial acts committed by tenants.

Landlords with antisocial tenants are thus forced to wait until any fixed term within the tenancy has ended so they can issue a Section 21 Notice or wait for 2 months rent arrears to accrue so they can go for possession under Section 8.

On a more general level, it has never really been made clear to me or to many others in housing, exactly how licensing landlords can help curb their tenants’ antisocial behaviour anyway.

Private Landlords Objections to Selective Licensing

In some places private landlords are trying to fight back. One such place is Southend on Sea, where the local authority has said they would like to license all landlords as part of a “Selective Licensing” scheme.

The trouble for this Essex council is that the police have admitted that the cause of antisocial behaviour by tenants is actually the local pubs and clubs and, of course, heavy alcohol consumption. In other words it has nothing to do with them being private tenants. And it’s not even clear that the bulk of those responsible are private sector tenants anyway.

Local landlords in Southend and elsewhere are often left to question why the council and the police do not use their own existing powers and deal with such behaviours themselves.

Local private landlords are not always as organised as in Southend. (Very few are members of landlords associations and thus they lack a common voice). It is for this reason that I expect more selective licensing schemes to get the green light.

(Readers should note that the leading mayoral candidates in London are all in favour of “light touch” accreditation for all landlords letting property in London. We call this “licensing lite”. Ken Livingston wants a full licensing system applied throughout the capital.)

Local Authorities and Police Must Use Their Existing Powers

At LettingFocus we have always said that councils and the police must use their existing powers to prosecute antisocial behaviour. And they must also use their power to shut down rogue operators who let “Sheds with Beds”.

Recently I gave a speech where a senior housing figure from a local authority said, “Yes, but we don’t have the money to take action against rogue landlord operators and antisocial tenants”.

I replied that she ought to take that issue up with government.

One thing is for sure though. Making all landlords licensed won’t achieve any significant reduction in antisocial behaviour by tenants. It will create jobs in the Town Halls and add to costs for landlords – most of which will be passed onto tenants.

And it won’t do anything to make rogue “Sheds with Beds” type operators think again. The only thing that they will respond to is very heavy fines, possibly accompanied by imprisonment for persistent repeat offenders.

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