It has been a very strange month for campaigns for fairer renting; in the best way possible, but still quite strange.
Firstly, a very welcome announcement to ban letting agent fees in England from the Chancellor. Although unexpected, this was off the back of years of sustained campaigning across the UK, particularly by Generation Rent, and followed a pledge by UK Labour to ban them if they had won the 2015 General Election. The idea has been floating in the ether for a while, and we were delighted that the UK Government finally decided to do something about it and announce a ban. Details are yet to be revealed, all we have so far is the below few lines, but we look forward to the consultation.
However, for Let Down in Wales, it was tinged with a bit of jealousy as this was for England’s private renters, not Wales. As we have been continuously calling for this for the last 3 years, we were keen to find out what the Welsh Government’s reaction was.
It turned out to be pretty positive, although still overly cautious for our liking. At the next FMQs, cross party support was demonstrated for a ban. Labour’s backbencher, Jenny Rathbone, held a short debate a couple of months ago highlighting her legal advice that showed the Assembly does have the power to do so; something which was in dispute during the Renting Homes Bill (despite it seeming fairly clear to us that with housing devolved, the Welsh Government would have the powers to take action in this area). The UK Government’s ring-fence to England in its recent announcement shows that they think the same. Jenny Rathbone has said that if she gets selected in the Private Member Bill ballot (taking place on 25th January 2017), hers will be on banning fees. Fingers crossed that she’ll get selected and can take this forward more quickly than the Welsh Government is inclined to.
There would be resounding support for it by the sounds of it, given that Plaid Cymru’s Leader, Leanne Wood, has also pushed the First Minister on it. She reminded him that Plaid had attempted an amendment to ban them (something Let Down was very grateful to former AM Jocelyn Davies for) and, apparently, Labour backbenchers have been given (since proven faulty) advice that Wales did not have the powers. She asked how long renters would have to wait for this ban, given that Scotland ensured it was reinforced in 2012 and had shown no rise in rent levels since. Every time Welsh Ministers cite concerns that rents will rise, they are giving voice to an unfounded claim that is merely purporting the protests from letting agents.
The Welsh Conservatives’ David Melding also added his voice to the chorus, making the point as Let Down always has that these ‘costs’ are part of doing business and should therefore be part of the business model: “There aren’t many goods and services where we actually get charged for the process of purchase, and there’s clear support all around the House for action to be taken on this. These fees do distort the market. They’re a disincentive to the mobility of labour, and the clear experience in Scotland is that the charges would be absorbed by those offering homes to rent, which is where they’ve traditionally been.”
Even if rents were slightly raised to cover these supposed ‘costs’ of printing out a contract, most renters would prefer that to be spread across at an extra £5-£10 a month than expecting to stump up hundreds when they’re moving house (already an expensive and stressful process, without losing so much money for so little in the process).
The following week, UKIP led a debate on letting agent fees. The full transcript is here – Let Down welcomes UKIP’s support and, although not party political, we can’t say were weren’t surprised that UKIP were the ones championing renters’ rights through their motion so emphatically. But we welcome their support for the ban and really hope that, if Jenny Rathbone’s Bill is selected to be debated, or if the Welsh Government finally put forward their own proposals, that we can get support from every corner of the Senedd.
It cannot be emphasised enough how much of a difference this will make to struggling renters. Letting agents are not always bad, but most of them are very expensive. This will finally make moving house less prohibitive a cost and it will level the playing field a good amount between renters and those supplying their homes.
So, bring on the ban!