Rachman, rogues and renting

Scandals hit private renting. With an election in the offing, the Labour opposition pledges help for tenants. There are definite parallels between now and the 1960s.

Everyone (especially those who oppose the party’s current modest reform plans) thinks they knows what happened in the wake of Rachmanism but the truth is far more complicated and so are the lessons for the future.

My interest in the period was first caught by a 2012 Radio 4 documentary called The Real Rachman – the Lord of the Slums. I thought I knew about Rachmanism but the programme told a much more nuanced and mysterious story that I blogged about shortly afterwards.

That blog prompted an email from Professor David Nelken, whose 1983 book on the aftermath of Rachmanism has just been reissued. The Limits of the Legal Process is a classic study of the sociology of the law that should be required reading for anyone involved in the current debates about regulating renting (or indeed regulating anything). The book is subtitled ‘a study of landlords, law and crime’ and it tells the story of the response to Rachmanism, first by the politicians with legislation, then by landlords with evasion and then by local authorities and the courts with implementation and enforcement.

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Revealing the real Rachman?

It’s almost 50 years since Peter Rachman died and we still use Rachmanism as a shorthand term for everything that is bad about bad landlords. But is what we think we know wrong?

That is the premise of a fascinating documentary on BBC Radio 4 this week that set out to find The Real Rachman – the Lord of the Slums (listen again on iplayer here). The legend it investigated was of the evil vice racketeer who owned slum properties in Notting Hill packed full of tenants with working girls ‘bending the basement’ below them. In 1963 the People exposed an ‘empire based on vice and drugs, violence and blackmail, extortion and slum landlordism the like of which this country has never seen and let us hope never will again’. The same year Panorama exposed a ‘big time 20th century racketeer’ who sent men round with dogs to evict his tenants.

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