Raising standards in the private rented sector
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Raising standards in the private rented sector

As the nation comes together to celebrate the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee, we’ll be looking back to 1952 to see how the government of the day dealt with ‘the business of letting.’

Earlier this month the government announced a long-awaited radical re-shaping of the rental sector in England. After the Queen’s speech, which previewed the Renters’ Reform Bill, Housing Secretary Michael Gove slated the conditions of some homes in the private rented sector.

In his statement Mr Gove claimed: Too many renters are living in damp, unsafe and cold homes, powerless to put it right, and under the threat of sudden eviction.”

The ‘New Deal’ for renters will help to end this injustice, he said, improving conditions and rights for millions of tenants.

A White Paper setting out more details will be published shortly. The bill is expected to be introduced in Parliament within weeks and will include:

• A ban on Section 21 ‘no fault’ evictions
• Reform to Section 8, to strengthen possession powers for landlords
• A new Private Renters’ Ombudsman to help solve more landlord-tenant disputes without going to court
• A new property portal to help landlords understand their obligations and allow tenants to hold them to account

The bill, which has been broadly welcomed, is intended to drive up standards for the UK’s 4.4 million renters by extending the Decent Homes Standard, heralding the biggest change to renters’ law in a generation.

As we look forward to a national holiday to celebrate the Queen’s 70 year reign, we consulted Hansard to see what MPs had to say about some all-too familiar issues facing letting agents and renters back in 1952.

It was just before dawn at 5.45am on April 23rd, 1952, when Sir Geoffrey Hutchinson finally stood up in the House of Commons.

The house had been sitting all night and Sir Geoffrey, the Member of Parliament for Ilford, North, apologised to his colleagues for directing their attention to the subject of letting agencies at such a late hour. 
He begged the house to indulge him, as he described the activities of a number of “very unwholesome persons who are conducting the business of letting houses and flats in circumstances which, I think, the House will regard as highly unsatisfactory.”

These rogue letting agencies had come into existence during the post war years as a result of a shortage of residential accommodation, he said. 
 “I suppose that when any commodity is in short supply it becomes a bait for unscrupulous and dishonest persons. Agencies of this nature seem to be entirely harmful. They are an organised fraud upon the most credulous, the most ignorant, and the most helpless members of the public.

Sir Geoffrey’s constituents had reported a number of problems, such as agencies charging a registration fee to find them suitable accommodation: “Sometimes it is two guineas; sometimes it is three guineas; sometimes, I think, it is more.”

The fee was usually time-limited, non-returnable and with no guarantees. 
Once a viewing was arranged, the unsuspecting applicant was told they would also have to pay a “very substantial sum” for furniture and fittings. 

The highest amount charged, he told his astonished colleagues, was £550 for a flat, with 2 years’ rent to be paid in advance: totalling a princely sum of £680 – roughly equivalent to around £21,000 in today’s money!

Unsuspecting constituents turned up for their viewings only to find that the owners had never heard of the fee-charging agency, or to be sent away because the property had already been let. Sir Geoffrey informed the House that he had never heard of a case where anyone had succeeded in obtaining a flat through these agencies.

No respectable estate agency would charge a client for doing nothing or before they had performed any service, he explained. No reputable agency would charge the person looking for a property, rather than the landlord. 
“We ought to protect members of the public who are too weak or too ignorant to protect themselves against the activities of these persons.” 

But how could this be done without interfering with the legitimate business of law-abiding estate agents? 
The first step in rooting this evil out, he proposed, would be to consult with leaders of the relevant professional bodies. These associations had long championed the professionalisation of the lettings industry, through membership or registration. Another solution might be to require agencies to register with their local authority.

 “In any case,” he said, “if this debate serves no other useful purpose, I trust that the activities of these ‘spivs’ of the house agents’ profession will receive sufficient publicity to warn people of what is likely to happen if they allow themselves to be drawn unwarily into this particular web.”
Lieutenant-Colonel Marcus Lipton, representing Brixton, said the House was indebted to Sir Geoffrey for raising this issue – despite the “somewhat inconvenient hour.”

“Reputable agents are becoming increasingly disturbed by the sharp practices used by mushroom firms,” he said, as he described how his own constituents had been ripped off by “these wretched fee-snatching firms.”
He highlighted the good work being done to protect the public by professional organisations such as the South-East London Brand of the Incorporated Society of Auctioneers and Landed Property Agents. 

Image source: https://www.gracesguide.co.uk

While he did not expect a ready-made solution, Lipton hoped that Sir Geoffrey would make a contribution towards solving “the growing problem of the exploitation of innocent people by unscrupulous men who are cashing in on what is a very great social need.” 
The Minister of Housing and Local Government, Mr Harold Macmillan - who went on to serve as Prime Minister from 1957-63 – thanked Sir Geoffrey for raising this matter. 

Macmillan, a touch cynically perhaps, cautioned that the degree of the problem should not be exaggerated: “Indeed, I am a little surprised from the information given to me that there have not been more actual complaints.”
Although recommending that fraudulent cases should be prosecuted, hopefully with the help of local authorities, he warned that the issue could prove complex: “Some of it is fraudulent in fact — although perhaps not in law — wicked but not illegal, like a good many things.”

While he would do everything he could to assist his honourable and learned friend to bring these matters to public notice, Mr Macmillan said that his faith lay in encouraging the professional societies to lead the way forward. 
“They can build up a great tradition of practice and rules of practice, which, perhaps, in one way or another, may someday become enforceable, either by public opinion or by law.”