A campaign to improve housing standards in Brighton won praise in the House of Lords this week.
Labour peer Lady Hayter of Kentish Town, the Shadow Consumer Minister, spoke about the Home Sweet Home campaign during a debate about the Queen’s speech.
Lady Hayter – formerly known as Dianne Hayter and sometimes referred to as Baroness Hayter – said the campaign highlighted the need for reform in private rented sector housing.
She said: “It was Labour—indeed, in this house—which saw an extension of the ombudsman scheme from estate agents to letting agents.
“However, there is more to do. We must support consumers, the poor and disadvantaged.
“Take ‘generation rent’, where the number of private renters, now nine million, has surpassed those in social housing for the first time.
“Private tenants face an insecurity that few of us would tolerate. They are 10 times more likely to move home per year than homeowners and a third of them moved last year.
“Yet surely they deserve the same stability as homeowners. So Labour will legislate to make three-year tenancies with predicable rents the norm.
“This is not rent control. I am old enough to remember that. This is about certainty and fairness.
“Tenants are now paying £1,000 a year more than when this government came into office.
“That is great for letting agents but what is unfair is not letting agents’ legitimate business but double charging, when both landlord and tenant pay for the same service.
“More than 90 per cent of letting agents impose charges on tenants on top of deposits and rent in advance – and charge them high fees for simple tasks such as renewing a contract.
“Labour will ban letting agents’ fees for tenants which will save families up to £500.
“I congratulate my honourable friends in the other place, Stella Creasy, Hilary Benn and Emma Reynolds, whose efforts on this got the Consumer Minister in the Commons to announce just yesterday that the government will amend the Consumer Rights Bill to force letting agents to display their fees, with a civil penalty of up to £5,000 to be paid by any agent who fails to do that.
“That is a welcome move. However, landlords, not tenants, choose the letting agents, so there is still nothing a tenant can do even if the letting agent is double charging.
“Such conditions are unacceptable.
“We must raise the standards of letting agents. Anyone can set up as an agent, including people with no qualification in landlord and tenant law and, more seriously, people with convictions or even those on the sex offenders’ register.
“There is not even a requirement for clients’ money to be kept in separate accounts.
“As I said, thanks to this House we have legislated to require agents to belong to an ombudsman but the government held back from enabling repeated poor behaviour to lead to a letting agent being struck off.
“Because individual consumers have little bargaining power when up against business, we will seek to improve the carried-over Consumer Rights Bill, not simply to codify rights but to enhance such rights to allow for collective redress where consumer law has been breached and to make retailers and service providers signpost access to an ombudsman.
“Our aim is for consumers to have information, advocacy and redress across all markets. That is good for shoppers but also good for business as it drives up standards.”
The Home Sweet Home campaign has been talking to tenants, landlords, and agents in Brighton and Hove since July last year.
It has uncovered stories of poor practices in some areas of the private rented sector.
In recent months the campaign has been working to turn the stories and research into practical changes to improve private rented housing in Brighton and Hove.
The campaigners have been working with the Students’ Union at Brighton University and have published a tenant guide to better inform students of their rights and responsibilities when renting.
They produced this with the help and advice of the Residential Landlords Association.
Representatives of the campaign have also met the Brighton and Hove City Council Housing Committee chairman Councillor Bill Randall for help and support for private tenants.