LANDLORDS held a public meeting on Thursday night to discuss the council's plans to impose a £200-a-year licence fee for every property they rent out in Croydon. Perhaps unsurprisingly, they're not happy, reports Gareth Davies.
Landlords had plenty of words for the council's plans to impose a licensing scheme in Croydon, none of which were flattering.
There was widespread opposition to the policy at a meeting organised by the National Landlords Association (NLA) at Hampton by Hilton, in Dingwall Road.
A week earlier Labour politicians held their own meeting to discuss Croydon's housing crisis at which a smaller crowd were told the licensing scheme would help tackle antisocial behaviour and raise standards of accommodation.
No one from the panel – or the council - was present on Thursday night to hear the concerns raised by landlords and letting agents, who questioned virtually every aspect of the scheme.
Licensing every private property in Croydon, they said, would penalise the majority of good, law-abiding landlords and have little impact on the worst offenders.
"They are targeting the reputable landlords and ignoring the rogue landlords," said one man.
There was anger at how much the licence will cost. The council suggests £1,000 per property over five years, twice as expensive as Newham, one of dozens of authorities where a licence is already in place. Gavin Dick, representing the NLA, said a more realistic charge would be £200 to £250.
Crucially, the 100 or so people who attended the meeting all seemed to agree who would end up having to pay.
"Many landlords will make a decision, as a business, to pass on the costs to their tenants," said Sally-Anne Stapleford, who has properties in Croydon and Crystal Palace.
Rachael Board, a senior branch manager for estate agent Leaders, attended the meeting to give feedback to more than 800 clients, many of whom, she said, were unaware of the changes.
"I'm sure both landlords and tenants are going to be saying no to this because it will raise rents," she told the group.
Cllr Alison Butler, the council's housing chief, was attending another civic event that evening and may have decided not to send a replacement to avoid an ambush by the Conservatives.
Gavin Barwell, MP for Croydon Central, is leading the campaign against the changes and was the guest speaker at the NLA meeting.
Mr Barwell said the licensing scheme would exacerbate Croydon's housing crisis by causing landlords to remove their properties from the market.
"That's going to hurt the people this policy claims to be trying to help," he said.
By law licensing schemes can only be imposed where there is either a lack of housing supply or where private rented properties can be linked to antisocial behaviour.
"The evidence the council is relying on doesn't back that up at all," said Mr Barwell.
"The number of private rented properties has been increasing but the number of incidents has been declining, which would suggest there isn't a correlation between the two."
Another issue is the standard of accommodation. The council cites the Building Research Establishment which says 10 per cent (11,397) of private housing in Croydon is in disrepair. The number of complaints received by the council relating to private rented accommodation has more than doubled from 630 in 2010 to 1,371 in 2013/14.
Mr Barwell said the number of complaints was "relatively small" given the estimated 30,000 private rented homes in the borough.
"The issue might be hidden because some people aren't willing to complain but, even so, it's very clear the problem relates to a small minority or private rented homes," he said.
"So why is the council doing something that affects all private landlords instead of dealing with those properties where there is a problem?
"It seems to me this policy is a stealth tax. It's going to raise about £4 million, the costs will be passed on to tenants and the council hopes landlords will get the blame."
Revenue from the licence fee is only allowed to be used to administer the scheme.
Mr Barwell said that his time as a cabinet member on the council, however, made him realise there were "grey areas" where seemingly ring-fenced funds could be used in a variety of ways.
He argued there are a number of existing powers to tackle rogue landlords instead of introducing a "blanket" policy which will lead people to pay higher rents.
"I want to do everything I can to make the council see sense and drop this policy."
Mr Dick, local authority policy officer for the NLA, said the scheme was "unjust" and "unequitable".
"The council thinks this will be the panacea for all the problems in the private rented sector but what they don't realise is, as landlords, you are quite restricted in what you can do when it comes to antisocial behaviour," he said.
"They don't understand the rules you have to follow. They seem to be under the illusion that you can monitor tenants 24 hours a day."
James Long, a landlord with 18 properties, had a list of concerns.
He said: "Why can't it be a charge per landlord rather than per property? A lot of landlords have multiple properties. Say a landlord has 30 one-bedroom flats, he could be looking at a £30,000 charge over five years. Where is the sense in that?
"Instead of just charging people money, why not use it for a good purpose and make landlords go on training to improve condition, to learn, to educate.
"Just charging people or fining them doesn't solve the problem. It just puts money into someone's coffers.
"If you put more charges on landlords they will simply get out of the market. If it's not worth it for them, they won't do it."
Mr Long was among the landlords to question the correlation between private sector housing and misbehaviour.
He said: "It's the type of person you put in homes, not the state of the property, which attracts antisocial behaviour."
Ms Stapleford said: "Antisocial behaviour is a societal problem. It has nothing to do with landlords. Society has created a certain class of people who haven't got respect.
"Landlords can't make badly behaved people into well behaved people. The government and schools have to change people's attitudes."
Mr Dick said there was an issue with rogue landlords but it stemmed from a lack of prosecutions. The problem, he said, is those breaking the law are exactly the type of people who won't sign up to the licence. There would be a £20,000 fine for those who do not comply.
"If you are a criminal and you are renting out substandard housing you're not going to walk down to the council and ask for a licence for the shed you're renting out."
Landlords at the meeting were urged to respond to the consultation process which is due to finish on October 17.
Mr Barwell said it would be more effective if they asked people living in their properties to reply to the tenant consultation which begins in November.
When asked about a possible legal challenge, Mr Barwell replied: "I'm not a lawyer but the legislation makes it very clear what evidence you have to provide in order to demonstrate the case. It's certainly arguable in this that the evidence doesn't meet the threshold set out in the law; certainly not to apply it across the whole of the borough.
"There may be clusters of streets, particularly in the north of the borough, which have a problem with antisocial behaviour linked to particular properties, but it's quite clear to me the evidence doesn't support doing it in a blanket way."
Robert Ward, one of the few landlords who attended Labour's meeting, said he recognised many of the issues Labour had raised. It was the solution he was having trouble getting his head around.
He said: "I thought perhaps I had gone mad. There are problems I understand and see but solutions which make no sense at all.
"In general the law is clear in that landlords aren't responsible for their tenant's behaviour unless they are complicit in it.
"Statistically, it is almost impossible to make the link between antisocial behaviour and rented properties. Quite honestly, what Croydon has done is absolutely laughable."
Dudley Mead, shadow cabinet member for housing, was among a handful of Conservative councillors at Thursday's meeting.
He said he had the option to introduce a licence fee "several years ago" but decided not to.
"I realised there was a major housing crisis in Croydon and what I needed to do was protect the supply," he said.
Cllr Mead claimed that, since Labour announced the idea in May, the supply of private rented accommodation made available to the council had "dried up".
"The reason for that is simple. If you are looking round where to invest or expand your portfolio, you will think twice about coming to a local authority which is proposing to impose upon you one of the highest levies for registration in the UK. There's no justification for it. This scheme is absolutely mad.
"Get your tenants to tell [the council] it is bad news because all of you are, in the long run, going to have to pass the costs on to them."