The limits of localism

Have any of the 516 housing announcements made by the DCLG under the coalition plumbed lower depths than this week’s ‘ending the tenant tax to help tackle rogue landlords’?

It’s not that there is no tenant tax out there to be tackled. The government could end the extortionate letting agent fees. It could stop the rent shortfalls faced by tenants whose local housing allowance has been cut. And it could limit the tax and financing advantages enjoyed by buy-to-let landlords that trap people as renters. Even if we limit the term to the private rented sector, and don’t include the bedroom tax, there are any number of options.

But what housing minister Brandon Lewis has in mind is the ‘unnecessary red tape’ of large scale licensing schemes adopted by several London boroughs and in cities outside the capital. He says:

‘The vast majority of private landlords offer a decent service – so I’m determined we end the “tenants tax” caused by draconian measures that do nothing to tackle rogue operators and only serve to push up rents.

‘I want councils to take targeted action and focus their efforts on tackling that small number of landlords who make their tenants’ lives a misery – and help create a bigger, better private rented sector as a result.’

New regulations laid before parliament mean that councils will still be able to introduce small licensing schemes but any scheme covering more than 20 per cent of an area or 20 per cent of local privately rented homes will need permission from the communities secretary. As Emily Twinch reports, they are due to be debated in the House of Lords on March 23 and apply from April 1.

The move in the final days of this parliament neatly mirrors one of the first DCLG announcements made under the coalition: the promise of ‘no more red tape’ made by Grant Shapps in June 2010 as he dumped plans for a national register of landlords, regulation of letting and management agents and compulsory written tenancy agreements.

But it also raises another question that goes back to the earliest days of the coalition: what does localism really mean? The drive to scrap national housing targets and let local communities decide what they need was the glue that held the two parts of the coalition together on housing. However, the Localism Act also allowed local authorities and landlords to decide for themselves on a range of issues including fixed-term tenancies, changes to allocations and discharging the homelessness duty into the private rented sector.

Thursday’s announcement highlights the extent to which localism only works in one direction. Reforms that go with the grain of Conservative policy are one thing, decisions made by local government that go against it quite another.

So what happens if the outcome of the election is a Labour-led coalition? The party is already committed to national action on private renting that could be a better bet than a series of local schemes but could it use a localist approach to other housing issues?

Take the right to buy, for example. Despite action to end or suspend it in Scotland and Wales, Labour is not proposing anything similar for England. But why not let local authorities decide for themselves what the level of discount should be in their area? It would only be ‘localism’ in action.

Whatever the outcome of the election, the housing delivery plans of both major parties envisage a much bigger role for local government. But do councils really have the money or the capacity to become proactive localist enablers?

As for the ‘tenant tax’, presumably we can now look forward to more targeted action against rogue landlords co-ordinated at a national level. It all sounds like a job for the cross-government taskforce set up by Lewis’s predecessor Mark Prisk in July 2013 to address the barriers councils face in ending ‘the illegal exploitation of vulnerable tenants’.

At least we could do if the taskforce had ever actually met.

-> Originally posted on Inside Edge 2, my blog for Inside Housing

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