Eric Pickles is such a hero to some that they took a cardboard replica of him on their holiday touring America. He has become a super Secretary of State who evidently does not need a Minister of State to support him on the key issues of his department (local government, housing, planning) which are all now dealt with by junior Ministers. He offers up cuts to his department every time George Osborne glances in his direction, causing so much internal disruption that it is hard to imagine how anything gets done.
CLG civil servants at least can be proud of the flurry of announcements that has come out of the department recently on the private rented sector, and the detailed response to the CLG Select Committees report on the PRS.
But there is not much sign of clear political resolve behind these professional pieces of work. They are announcements for their own sake, noise not light. Broadly, they add up to a tacit admission that greater regulation is required and that action needs to be taken across the board, from standards and enforcement to security of tenure and rents. But action is there none.
Charters, codes of practice and guidance have their place and can make a difference, but they are often a cover for timidity of action, being seen to be doing something whilst largely leaving it alone. Everything we know about this Government tells us that they believe in letting the market do its thing, untrammelled by Government interference.
Bundles of new documents will only increase red tape without achieving much in practice for tenants on the ground.
So, there will a new ‘tenants charter’ explaining how tenants can ‘ask for longer tenancies’ and get more information about lettings agents’ fees. Agents will be required to join a redress scheme (that at least is a good step, as 40% of agents are not already in a scheme). There will be a code of practice on standards for the management of the PRS and guidance on the role of public bodies in dealing with illegal eviction. There will also be a new ‘model tenancy agreement’, which will not be enforceable. All these documents will be subject to yet more consultation.
Mr Pickles said: ‘This government is on the side of hardworking people and the last thing we want to do is hurt tenants and kill investment by increasing costs and strangling the sector with red tape’. Red Tape! The man has a nerve.
(It is tangentially noteworthy that the documents continually refer to ‘hardworking tenants’ but as far as I am aware all tenants have the same legal rights whether they are in work or not and hardworking or not.)
Behind his new wall of documents and consultation, Pickles has copped out on all the real issues facing the sector. For example, there will be no regulation of lettings agents, which has been called for by landlords as well as tenants. Despite the existing mountain of reports and recommendations, action on some key issues will be further deferred as the Government carries out yet more ‘reviews’: conditions on mortgage lending, how tenants can complain without retaliatory eviction, repaying rent and recouping housing benefit in hazardous properties.
The core argument about the private rented sector is this: it has grown phenomenally over the last decade so that it now houses 9 million tenants. The composition has changed, with many more families with children and vulnerable people. Most landlords want to provide reasonable homes but there is a significant rogue element that exploits tenants, and very little is done about them. Too many properties contain serious hazards. It is the last unmodernised industry run largely by amateurs where consumers have few rights and little redress. Rogue agents who benefit most from high turnover disrupt the market to the disbenefit of both landlords and tenants. It is a classic case where effective regulation, licensing and enforcement could make a huge difference to the quality of life of millions and help create the kind of modern professional business that we see abroad.
Whilst Mr Pickles drowns private tenants in a sea of red tape, the real challenges facing the sector have not been addressed. No vision. No strategy. It would have made no difference if those travellers had taken the real thing with them and left the cardboard replica in the Secretary of State’s office in CLG.