“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.

 
 
 
 

To boost the high street, cities should invest in offices

Offices in Northampton. Image: Getty.

Access to cheap borrowing has encouraged local authorities to proactively invest in commercial property. These assets can be a valuable tool for cities looking to improve the built environment they offer businesses and residents.

Councils are estimated to have spent £3.8bn on property between 2013 and 2017, funded through the government’s Public Works Loan Board (PWLB) at very low interest rates. Offices accounted for half of this investment, and roughly a third (£1.2bn) has been spent on retail properties. And local authorities were the biggest investor group for UK shopping centres in the first quarter of 2018.

Why are cities investing? There are two major motivations.

First, at a time when cuts are squeezing council revenue budgets, property investments can provide a long-term revenue stream to keep quality public services up and running. Second, ownership of buildings in areas marked for redevelopment allows councils to assemble land more easily and gives them more influence over the changes taking place, allowing them to make sure the space evolves to meet their objectives.

But how exactly can cities turn property ownership into successful place-making? How should they adapt the buildings they invest in to improve the performance of the economies?

Cities need workers

When developing the city’s property offer, the aim should be to get jobs back into the city centre while reducing the dominance of retail space. For councils who have invested in existing retail space and shopping centres, in particular, the temptation may be to try and retain their existing use, with new retail strategies designed to reduce vacancies.

But as the Centre for Cities’ recent Building Blocks report illustrates, the evidence points to this being a dead-end. Instead, cities may need to convert the properties they own so they house a more diverse group of businesses.

Many city centres already have a lot of retail – and this has not offered significant economic benefit. Almost half (43 per cent) of city centre space in the weakest city economies is taken up by shops, while retail only accounts for 18 per cent of space in strong city centre economies. And many of these shops lie empty: in weaker city centres vacancy rates of high-street services (retail, food and leisure) are on average 16 per cent, compared with 9 per cent in stronger city economies. In Newport, nearly a quarter of these premises are empty, as the map below shows.

The big issue in these city centres is the lack of office jobs – which are an important contributor to footfall for retailers. This means that, in order to improve the fortunes of the high street, policy will need to tackle the barriers that deter those businesses from moving to their city centres.

One of these barriers is the quality of office space. In a number of struggling city centres, the quality of office space on offer is poor. But the low returns available for private investors mean that some form of public sector involvement will be required.


Ownership of buildings gives cities the opportunity to reshape the type of commercial space on offer. Some of this will involve improving the existing office stock available, some will involve converting retail to office, and some of will require demolishing part of the space without replacing it, in the short term at least. Without ownership of the land and buildings on it, this task becomes very difficult to do but will be a fundamental part of turning the fortunes of a city centre around.

Cheap borrowing has provided a way not only for local authorities to generate an income stream through property investment. but also opens up the opportunity to have greater control over the development of their city centres. For those choosing to invest, the focus must be on using ownership to make the city centre a more attractive place for all businesses to invest, rather than hoping to revive retail alone.

Rebecca McDonald is an analyst at the Centre for Cities, on whose blog this article first appeared.