The government has launched a consultation on banning letting fees, a proposal originally tabled by Liberal Democrat peer Olly Grender. It’s responsible and right to address the shortcomings for tenants of a private rental market that now accounts for 19% of all households. And as the consultation paper sets out, there’s an economically liberal logic to the ban as well.
As a liberal, I’m not against market-based proposals for social problems. On the contrary, I’m all for them. In the summer after I left school, I worked temporarily as a Housing Allocations Officer. I see no reason in principle why housing associations should be the main providers of homes to people on benefits, for example — providing there’s enough housing to go round, and so long as people aren’t trapped in poor-quality accommodation. Indeed, greater choice for those on benefits within the private sector may be to their advantage, and improve social mobility overall. What’s more, it’s cost effective provision from the point of view of the state. However, there’s an obvious barrier to decent private rental accommodation frequently faced by those on benefits: the reluctance of so many private landlords to rent their properties to them. For many people, this is unfair discrimination. Banning letting fees is a positive step, but won’t tackle this sort of problem. My issue with the government’s plans is that they’re another example of Theresa’s tokenism.
Private landlords, with perhaps a “buy to let” as their pension pot, and renters are both likely to be among our party members. What could we as Liberal Democrats propose to help groups of tenants with little available capital beyond their rent money into better quality accommodation and, at the same time, keep landlords on board who want to protect their assets from risk?
We could reform the practice of deposits. The government says in its consultation that it is keen to consider a maximum cap of deposits (paragraph 72). I support that, but we could protect properties more radically, and more fairly.
Private landlords are often put off renting to those on benefits, for example, because the buildings insurance premiums become prohibitively expensive. I do not know what statistical evidence forms the basis for prejudicial premiums against such tenants, and whether that evidence base could be regulated to ensure it’s applied reasonably rather than unjustly. As a party, we could explore that.
What’s more, in Switzerland it’s the tenant who shows proof of a personal insurance policy that covers any damage they might do to the property they’re renting while living in it. For a small Swiss flat I lived in, this “insurance bought by the tenant” was in lieu of a large deposit.
So in the Swiss scheme there’s still a small upfront cost for tenants, and — as insurance — it would be an expense that’s non-refundable. But because of that, the cost should be all the lower than a deposit, and the funds would be easier for tenants to muster (especially without lettings fees). The policy price would be variable depending on the tenant’s profile, encouraging personal responsibility. On the introduction of any such insurance, safeguards would have be put in place so that premiums would be calculated on proper evidence, rather than impressionistic stereotypes of specific social groups.
It’s not just letting fees that need to be addressed in Britain’s rental market. We need to make it easier for private landlords to accept tenants with little spare capital, but who can afford the rent. Doing so would ease the housing crisis among the most vulnerable in a cost-effective way, and it would keep small-time landlords on board with policy — who are increasingly important players in the marketplace.
* Sean Williams is a Lib Dem member in the Sheffield Hallam constituency