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Sadiq Khan and the battle against bad landlords


The Labour mayor could have some unexpected allies in his quest to improve standards in the capital’s private rented sector

London homes to let.

London homes to let. Photograph: Yui Mok/PA

Siân Berry, Green Party member of the London Assembly, is conducting a survey of the growing number of people in the capital who rent accommodation from private landlords - about 2.3 million of them and counting. Berry would like there to be a renters union to help strengthen the hand of tenants coping with poor conditions, insecurity and unreasonable rents. A private renter herself, she says she’s lived in half a dozen different flats and houses since moving to the city, coughing up half her income in the process. Her present landlord seems to lack a decent plumber.

Sadiq Khan became London mayor in May pledging to improve London’s burgeoning private rented sector (PRS). His manifesto says he’ll set up a London-wide, not-for-profit lettings agency for the benefit of good landlords and tenants alike, make it easier for boroughs to bring in landlord licensing schemes and name and shame bad landlords online. It also promises he’ll “fight for the mayor and London councils to have a greater say in strengthening renters’ rights over tenancy lengths, rent rises and the quality of accommodation”. How is he getting on so far?

At mayor’s question time on Wednesday, Khan said he’d been making his case to government to be given the greater powers he requires, beginning with helping boroughs with licensing. Labour AM Tom Copley, another private renter, drew Khan’s attention to an increase in the number of London children living in temporary accommodation and said that “40% of Londoners who enter temporary accommodation do so because of the end of an assured, short term tenancy”. This, he said, underlined a need for “more stability” for tenants within the PRS, especially in light of the general economic uncertainty resulting from Brexit. He asked: “Is control over tenancy now on the table in terms of devolution?”

Khan said, reasonably enough: “Who knows?” He revealed that it hadn’t been on the table of the previous communities secretary, Greg Clark, with whom progress on housing issues in general had been good. Now someone else, Sajid Javid, is in the job. My guess is it won’t be on his table either. Copley then asked Khan about progress with his London Living Rent policy, which would see a new PRS tenure introduced in the capital for some new homes, with rents pegged to one third of average local earnings - a lot lower than the current norm. “A lot of that boils down to the deal we can make with DCLG [Department for Communities and Local Government],” Khan replied. “I’m due to speak to new secretary of state later this week. I hope to meet him shortly.”

Copley asked if the London Living Rent policy could be implemented without government co-operation. “Good question,” replied Khan. His answer, in short, was that it could be realised through borough planning agreements right away. Housing market experts have not demurred, telling the Financial Times that incorporating such rent-indexed dwellings within “affordable” obligations wouldn’t be hard. But more such homes could be supplied in London if that deal Khan is seeking to strike with the government is a good one. We’re talking money, we’re talking subsidy. Surprise, surprise.

Khan also underlined his wish to “help renters by rooting out the minority of bad landlords who let the whole sector down”. This recognition that most landlords aren’t crooked or inept has not gone unnoticed by the Residential Landlords Association (RLA), whose members have backed his “name and shame” plan.

The RLA opposes landlord licensing, arguing that it doesn’t tackle the criminal element and takes up borough time that would be better spent making more effective use of enforcement muscle they already have. The RLA won’t be alone in spotting that new housing minister Gavin Barwell has been a firm critic of licensing. The fact that Barwell, who is the MP for Croydon Central, has also been made minister for London may seem to bode ill for Khan.

That said, a commitment to nobbling out-and-out villain landlords is common ground and in line with the more positive provisions of the Housing and Planning Act. RLA policy director David Smith argues that borough officers sometimes don’t fully understand the existing powers at their command, which are quite complex. And, as ever, there’s a shortage of resources. He thinks the mayor could address this by, for example, “seed funding a programme for enhanced enforcement in a couple of boroughs as part of his drive to improve standards”.

Smith feels his early interactions with the new City Hall regime have been useful. Siân Berry, meanwhile, says her Big Renters Survey has already collected “some genuine horror stories”. Both could contribute to Khan’s attempts to improve London’s PRS. Building broad alliances is one of the ways London mayors get things done.

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