Posted by: Jules Birch05/07/2011
Rarely can a housing minister have been so far on the wrong side of the argument as Grant Shapps appeared to be on Landlords from Hell last night.
If you didn’t see the Channel 4 documentary by Jon Snow you should make sure you catch it on 4OD because it was the most powerful piece of television about housing that I can remember for years.
What made it so good was not just the truly appalling case studies of an unscrupulous landlord that is (incredibly) a charity in the North West and the tenants living a whole street of rat-infested garden sheds in west London, but the personal engagement of Jon Snow. Time and again he would mention the conditions he’d encountered when he worked for a day centre for homeless young people before he became a journalist and his shock at finding the same thing was back 40 years on.
‘I had no idea that such widespread abuse and exploitation still plays such a role in the private rented sector,’ he said - and you could almost feel the TV audience opening their eyes too.
But not Shapps. In this context his standard lines about too much bureaucracy and a small minority of rogues came across as woefully detached from the fact that people are living in sheds on his watch.
So far, so bad but things got even worse for him during the programme. As the debate raged on Twitter about the issues and his own performance he was tweeting to welcome his 25,000th follower rather than respond to the programme. Cue lots of Twitter abuse.
In fairness to Shapps he’s recovered some ground this morning by tweeting ‘shocking - we’re determined to stamp out bad landlords’. It also wasn’t him that created the conditions that led to a massive increase in the number of private tenants over the last five years.
But it is him who came into the job rejecting a modest package of regulation as too bureaucratic. And it’s him who’s housing minister at the time when it has become blindingly obvious that something has to change.
Ask any landlord or letting agent who runs their business properly and they will agree with the need for action. They know that the rogues are dragging down the reputation of the whole sector and that they can undercut them through poor standards and unscrupulous management practices. Getting agreement on exactly what should change has always been the problem.
And the tragedy is that something else is changing in the meantime - and not for the better.
Local authorities that already seem unwilling or unable to enforce the existing legislation (Ealing, the borough with the street of sheds, has made just one prosecution in the last year) are seeing their funding cut. Thousands more homeless people will be forced into the private rented sector under plans to change the homelessness legislation. And tenants’ chances of enforcing what’s left of their rights will get even slimmer once Legal Aid is cut.
From Inside edge
Housing commentator Jules Birch puts the latest news in context