Autumn statement: Letting fees are awful, and Philip Hammond is right to ban them

Chancellor Philip Hammond enjoys a private joke somewhere in the Autumn Statement. Image: Getty.

A tragedy, in one graph:

Isn’t that awful? Isn’t that the saddest thing you’ve ever seen? A universally adored brand like Foxtons, losing a tenth of its value in an hour off the back of one bit of bad news? It couldn’t happen to a nicer firm. Perhaps it’s time for the inaugural CityMetric Christmas appeal.

Or we could not do that, on the grounds that banning letting agents fees is a thoroughly good thing, and estate agents are awful.

The move, which chancellor Philip Hammond is announcing in today’s Autumn Statement, will bar lettings agents in England and Wales from demanding tenants pay whatever fees they happen to feel like. (Those in Scotland are already barred from doing so.)

Lettings agents do have costs, of course: reference checks, credit checks, repairing the deliberate damage passers-by do to those minis in examples of what are basically hate crimes. In future, though, they’ll have to recoup them through landlords, rather than tenants.

The whiny, kneejerk, “pro-business” critique of this policy runs as follows. Any attempt to interfere in the operation of the free market will necessarily harm the weakest participants in that market. If letting agents pass their costs onto landlords, landlords will in turn pass them onto tenants. Ergo, the real victims of any attempt to stop lettings agents from torturing tenants any way they happen to feel like it will be tenants themselves.

This critique is, of course, a steaming pile of horseshit, spread about by the sort of people who have no shame about publicly announcing that they’ve not thought very hard about this and probably aren’t actually that clever. For one thing it’s obviously ridiculous. They’re banning parasitical middle men from demanding hundreds of pounds with menaces from renters whenever they have to do some photocopying – and you think that will actually harm renters? Are you high?


But no, let’s be fair to them and destroy their argument using actual logic. Yes, lettings agents do have costs. But there is no evidence that the fees they charge reflect those costs. Occasional CityMetric contributor Alex Parsons put together a report on this, available on the website lettingfees.co.uk. He found that the cost of new tenancy agreements varied from £48 to £450.

Administrative costs clearly don’t vary by a factor of 10: some of those letting agents are charging inflated fees, not because they have to, but because they can. By the time the fee is due, most tenants will have committed to their new home: the agents have them over a barrel. They’re price-gouging, and they should stop.

But there are legitimate costs, of course. Won’t these be passed onto tenants in higher rents? Very possibly – because, while the availability of property won’t change, the availability of money to pay for it will.

Even this is no bad thing, though, since at least they will be passed on consistently. At the moment it’s impossible for tenants to compare the real price of a new home, because are not shown in the advertised rent. Banning letting fees will introduce a much needed measure of transparency to the market.

There are other benefits to a ban. The added costs are likely to be more managable if paid as part of the rent, rather than in a single, upfront lump. It also means an end to unpredictable extra fees, when individual tenants leave houseshares or contracts otherwise need amending.

But if you’re still not convinced, there’s one more way you can tell that the real victims of this policy will be estate agents, rather than tenants. It’s this:

There is a reason that has happened: investors think this policy means that less money will now be going to Foxtons.

It’s a tragedy. A real tragedy, I tell you.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter, far too much, as @jonnelledge.

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Here’s a fantasy metro network for Birmingham & the West Midlands

Birmingham New Street. Image: Getty.

Another reader writes in with their fantasy transport plans for their city. This week, we’re off to Birmingham…

I’ve read with interest CityMetric’s previous discussion on Birmingham’s poor commuter service frequency and desire for a “Crossrail” (here and here). So I thought I’d get involved, but from a different angle.

There’s a whole range of local issues to throw into the mix before getting the fantasy metro crayons out. Birmingham New Street is shooting up the passenger usage rankings, but sadly its performance isn’t, with nearly half of trains in the evening rush hour between 5pm and 8pm five minutes or more late or even cancelled. This makes connecting through New Street a hit and, mainly, miss affair, which anyone who values their commuting sanity will avoid completely. No wonder us Brummies drive everywhere.


There are seven local station reopening on the cards, which have been given a helping hand by a pro-rail mayor. But while these are super on their own, each one alone struggles to get enough traffic to justify a frequent service (which is key for commuters); or the wider investment needed elsewhere to free up more timetable slots, which is why the forgotten cousin of freight gets pushed even deeper into the night, in turn giving engineering work nowhere to go at all.

Suburban rail is the less exciting cousin of cross country rail. But at present there’s nobody to “mind the gap” between regional cross-country focussed rail strategy , and the bus/tram orientated planning of individual councils. (Incidentally, the next Midland Metro extension, from Wednesbury to Brierley Hill, is expected to cost £450m for just 11km of tram. Ouch.)

So given all that, I decided to go down a less glamorous angle than a Birmingham Crossrail, and design a Birmingham  & Black Country Overground. Like the London Overground, I’ve tried to join up what we’ve already got into a more coherent service and make a distinct “line” out of it.

Click to expand. 

With our industrial heritage there are a selection of old alignments to run down, which would bring a suburban service right into the heart of the communities it needs to serve, rather than creating a whole string of “park & rides” on the periphery. Throw in another 24km of completely new line to close up the gaps and I’ve run a complete ring of railway all the way around Birmingham and the Black Country, joining up with HS2 & the airport for good measure – without too much carnage by the way of development to work around/through/over/under.

Click to expand. 

While going around with a big circle on the outside, I found a smaller circle inside the city where the tracks already exist, and by re-creating a number of old stations I managed to get within 800m of two major hospitals. The route also runs right under the Birmingham Arena (formerly the NIA), fixing the stunning late 1980s planning error of building a 16,000 capacity arena right in the heart of a city centre, over the railway line, but without a station. (It does have two big car parks instead: lovely at 10pm when a concert kicks out, gridlocks really nicely.)

From that redraw the local network map and ended up with...

Click to expand. 

Compare this with the current broadly hub-and-spoke network, and suddenly you’ve opened up a lot more local journey possibilities which you’d have otherwise have had to go through New Street to make. (Or, in reality, drive.) Yours for a mere snip at £3bn.

If you want to read more, there are detailed plans and discussion here (signup required).