“Landlords are stressed about school fees”, and other gems from the worst housing press release ever sent

To let signs in Bath. Image: Matt Cardy/Getty.

I work for REDACTED, and wondered if you would be interested in a story about how a third of landlords are stressed out from troublesome tenants due to the demands placed on them

So begins a press release that found its way to me this morning. (Okay, that's not an exact quote – it doesn't actually say “redacted”. I've decided to cut the name of the company being PRed for reasons that will become apparent.) It relates to a survey, conducted to promote the work of a firm which provides property management services for Britain’s hard-pressed landlords.

I, like every other journalist on the planet in the 21st century, get a lot of badly targeted press releases: ones covering deeply boring things, or, sometimes, quite interesting things that are, nonetheless, entirely irrelevant to anything I write about. It's the cost of doing business and, while I may wonder, in an idle moment, what crime I committed in a previous life that meant I now deserved to be on the refrigeration industry's mailing list, it doesn't really matter in any serious way.

But  just occasionally, one reaches me* that is relevant, but which is so horrifically, magnificently, mis-targeted, that it's genuinely worth writing up – albeit not for any of the reasons that the PR agency who sent it think it is. This is one of those times.

Here's that first sentence again:

I work for REDACTED, and wondered if you would be interested in a story about how a third of landlords are stressed out from troublesome tenants due to the demands placed on them, and their dependence on the rental money received to pay of [sic] their mortgage (50%), children’s university (10%) and school fees (13%).

Okay. So the story here is that buy-to-let landlords – people who, in the middle of the worst housing crisis this country has seen in decades, pretty much by definition own more than one home; people whose income comes to a large extent from the labour of people who are younger and poorer than themselves – those poor, honest, hard-working landlords are feeling the squeeze.

They're not greedy, or anything, you understand – they're “dependent” on that money. Those school fees won't pay themselves. (Unrelated: In 2014, according to the Citizen's Advice Bureau, after accounting for housing costs, 21 per cent of the population were in poverty.)

Landlords are, if anything, the victims here – victims of those “troublesome” tenants, who make their lives a living hell, by demanding things like working central heating and ceilings that don’t double as water features and homes that are in any way fit to live in. Why can’t they just be grateful, eh?

The research which polled 500 British landlords, found that 83% of landlords spend up to £5000 per year on property repairs for their rental home.

Notice the way the figures there are in bold. Our eyes are meant to be drawn to them, presumably in a “oh my god how terrible” sort of a way.

Actually, though, they’re a bit baffling. A majority of landlords “spent up to” £5,000 per year? Is that a maximum? Does that mean the other 17 per cent aren’t spending anything? (In which case, given that houses need maintenance, WTF?) Or do they spend more than that? In which case, why not emphasise that figure?

Either way, we’re clearly meant to be shocked by this figure – “Landlords have to pay money to maintain their properties? My god!” – so let’s assume the tiny violins are out and move on. 

Further findings from the research revealed:

Over a third (34%) of landlords receive calls in the middle of the night from renters

Without knowing what those calls are, that sentence is a bit meaningless. If the tenants are ringing for a chat, or asking the whereabouts of I. P. Freely, I can see how that’d be a bit irritating. If it’s “the radiator just exploded, send help”, it’s a different matter.

Minor issues for call outs ranging from unblocking drains (23%)...

Doesn’t sound like a minor issue, but okay.

... lost keys (19%)...

These landlords would rather their tenants just changed the locks without bothering them, would they?

...and changing a light bulb (13%)

Okay, I’ll give them that one. That is a minor issue. Change your own bloody lightbulbs, tenants. Can’t reach? Get a step ladder. Get a bloody step ladder, you lazy, lazy sods.

43% of landlords are unclear on what their current responsibilities are when it comes to repairing their property

That’s a genuinely newsworthy figure, and one which an organisation which offers management services to landlords obviously has an interest in promoting. But it is, charitably, an incredibly strange fit with the “oh poor landlords” tone of the rest of the release. 

There’s more – there’s much more – but the bits that look good aren’t interesting, and the bits that are interesting don’t look good. Halfway down the release there’s this golden nugget:

Landlords spend 11 hours a month managing their property

Last November, the average rent in the UK stood at just under £9,000 a year. To earn that sum, landlords have to invest just over one working day a month.

I think we can be pretty confident that the tenants living in those homes are working a lot more than 11 hours every month to pay that bloody rent.

I decided not to name and shame either the agency who this release was meant to publicise, or the PR firm who wrote the release. That might look a bit of a cop out – but I’m being a bit self-indulgent in writing this rant in the first place, and this is exactly the kind of write up that PRs are hired to avoid, and the PRs in question asked nicely. I'm punishing them enough by writing this: I quite genuinely have no desire to get anyone in actual trouble.

But I decided to write it up anyway, because the release does, inadvertantly, sum up everything that is wrong with many landlords' attitudes to their role and their tenants. It implies we are meant to feel sorry for the people who are hogging Britain’s scarce housing stock, because they’re worrying about how to pay their kids school fees. It implies that tenants are being a pain in the backside by expecting to have a functional home, or a copy of the key to their own front door. It implies that being a landlord should be easy.

Well – it shouldn’t. Being someone’s landlord doesn’t just give you access to a significant chunk of their salary every month. It gives you certain responsibilities, too, to ensure their home is warm and well-maintained and that it doesn’t smell of sewage because the drains have got blocked again. Becoming a landlord is not a lifetime guarantee of free money.

The buy-to-let classes have already collected most of Britain’s housing wealth, through a combination of well-timed investment and having been born at the right time. Congratulations. I’m happy for them. But since they’ve already got the money, do they really need our sympathy, too?

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He tweets as @jonnelledge.

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*Full disclosure: This release was never actually sent to me personally, but to a friend who also writes about housing stuff, and who forwarded it to me in a “WTF” sort of way. It's also, for some reason that entirely escapes me, embargoed for Saturday. But since I'm a) not naming the firm and b) am about to rip the release to shreds, it doesn't seem worth worrying about.

 
 
 
 

It’s time to rethink how the British railway network works

Nothing doing: commuters await a long-delayed train. Image: Getty.

The recent meltdowns on Northern and Thameslink not only left many passengers besides themselves with frustration about not being able to get to work on time, if at all. It also led to a firestorm of criticism and condemnation from politicians and media alike.

With the immediate shock of that first Monday morning of the meltdown passed, there’s a now a bigger debate about whether the way that rail services are provided for cities needs some far reaching reform. But before coming to that, the first thing to say – and as we set out in our Rail Cities UK report, launched today – is that the fundamentals for urban rail remain very strong.

Here’s why. All cities want to become denser, more dynamic places which attract the best people to the growth sectors of the economy (including the ‘flat white economy’ of media, communications and information). In order to achieve this, as well as to improve air quality, cities are also reducing space for motorised traffic in favour of space for people.

It’s very difficult to see how this can be achieved without expanding rail networks and their capacity. What’s more, if housing need is to be met without creating more sprawl and traffic congestion, then again its rail that will be key – because it opens up former rail-connected brownfield industrial sites, it extends commuting range, plus housing can be built above or around new or existing rail stations and interchanges.

In some ways there’s nothing new here. From Metroland to Docklands, successful cities have always grown with their rail networks. And to be fair, there is significant investment going into urban rail at present. Northern will get a lot better (the pacers are doomed) and both Merseyside and Tyne & Wear are getting a whole new fleet of trains for their urban rail networks.

However, much (but not all) of this investment is incremental, or replacing rolling stock on its last legs. It stops short of the wider vision for the rail cities that we need.


What would that look like in practice? There comes a point when the biggest cities need more cross-city routes, because running trains in and out of edge-of-centre termini can’t cope with the numbers. That explains the push for Crossrail 2 in London, but also the need for more cross-city capacity in cities like Birmingham (on the Snow Hill route) as well as in Manchester (on the Oxford Road to Manchester Piccadilly corridor, as well as a potential new underground route).

Tram-train technology can also help – allowing the lucky commuter that benefits to get on board at their local station and get off right outside their city centre office on main street in the city centre, rather than piling out at a Victorian railway terminal on the edge of that city centre.

Tram-trains aren’t the only tech fix available. Battery packs can extend the range of existing electric trains deeper into the “look ma, no wires” hinterlands, as well as allow trams to glide through city centres without the expensive clutter of overhead wires.

More mundane but equally useful work to increase capacity through signalling, station, track and junction work offers the opportunity to move to turn-up-and-go frequency networks with greater capacity and more reliability – networks that start to emulate the best of what comparable German rail cities already enjoy. Interlocking networks of long distance, regional express, regional, S-bahn, U-bahn, trams and buses, all under common ticketing.

But in talking about Germany and common ticketing I am now getting back to where I started around the debate on whether some fundamental change is needed on how urban rail networks are provided. Obviously there is a bigger national discussion going on about whether the current structure is just too layered, with too many costly interfaces and too fractured a chain of command. And in addition another, on whether the railway should be publicly or privately owned and operated.

But it’s been heartening to see the growing recognition that – regardless of how these debates are resolved – more devolution for urban and regional services should be part of any solution. That’s not only because fully devolved services have been out-performing comparators both operationally and in passenger satisfaction; it’s because local control rather than remote control from Whitehall will mean that the dots can be joined between rail and housing, between rail and the wider re-fashioning of city centres, and between rail and local communities (for example through repurposing stations as wider hubs for local community use, enterprises and housing). It will also allow for rail and the rest of local urban public transport networks to be part of one system, rather than be just on nodding terms as is all too often the case at present.

The crisis on Northern and Thameslink has been a miserable experience for rail users, affected cities and the rail industry. If any good has come out of it, it is that it shows how important rail is to cities, and opens up a space for some bigger thinking about what kind of rail cities we will need for the future – and how best we can make that happen.

Jonathan Bray is the Director of the Urban Transport Group which represents the transport authorities for the largest city regions. You can read the group’s full report here.