The new landlord lobbying group is fighting to regain the Tories’ ear

Home sweet home. Image: Getty.

When Kirsty Archer moved into her first apartment in Streatham at the age of 27, she finally felt like she had achieved the freedom to steer her own life.

The apartment she shared wasn’t perfect. It shouldered the usual creeks one might expect of a £1,400 a month two-bed flat built in 1933. An unreliable boiler, dodgy locks, the odd cold shower. But despite these teething problems, for Kirsty, it was home.

When she tried to iron out these issues, however, her landlord was impatient. “This is really stressing me out,” she was told. Kirsty remembers being warned: “I’ve never had any issues with any other tenants.”

She came to forget these glitches. Until one evening in February last year, Kirsty came home from work to find a thick, brown envelope waiting for her. She tore it open and, scanning the letter, burst into tears. She was being served with an eviction notice.

Kirsty felt puzzled – there was no specific reason given. “We’d done nothing wrong,” she said. Under Section 21 of Margaret Thatcher's 1988 Housing Act, “no-fault” evictions are permitted, meaning landlords can repossess their property in two months whenever they desire.

Kirsty had always considered Labour the party of renters. She’d even done some local organising with them in 2018. So it seemed surprising when Theresa May announced last April the government’s intention to side with renters and abolish Section 21. Advocacy groups, after campaigning for years to end no-fault evictions, were somewhat taken aback. The Conservatives had always been considered the party of landlords.

Unsurprisingly, the two major landlord interest groups, the National Landlords Association, based in London, and the Residential Landlords Association, based in Manchester, were quick to denounce the policy. Worse, they felt outflanked, outmaneuvered. How could a jumbled collection of tenant campaigners without central organisation have persuaded the Tories to turn leftwards? What would avoid them being caught flat-footed in the future?

“Utterly no doubt, it was politically motivated,” says John Stewart, the RLA policy manager. In his view, May was trying to win back voters that swung to Labour in 2017.

Stewart talks with a soft, lilting Scottish accent. He worked for the Liberal Democrats in parliament and as a city councilor in Aberdeen before joining the RLA, which represents 40,000 landlords. For him, Section 21 underpins the private rental sector, which accounts for 19 per cent of UK households. “It’s about the confidence to invest,” he says. No Section 21 will mean more AirBnbs.

Throughout summer 2019, the RLA and NLA became increasingly close campaigning to keep Section 21. They struck a good team. “I suspect the NLA might see themselves as more pragmatic and we might be seen as more belligerent,” Stewart said. Together, they boasted around 80,000 members speaking with a united voice.

They viewed the fall of May as an opportunity. “We thought when we got a new prime minister that there may be a chink of light,” Stewart said. The two groups decided it was time for bold action, and on 29 August announced plans for a merger, forming a group representing roughly 10 per cent of all rental homes.

Ben Beadle was the man tasked with building a tent big enough to encompass the pragmatic NLA and the belligerent RLA. In one way or another, his entire career had been spent enforcing discipline. Beadle was a Justice of the Peace in West London – dispensing “summary justice” in magistrates courts – alongside his role as operations director at property management firm Touchstone. In his younger days, he’d been a referee in the FA Cup. As he described it on his LinkedIn profile, “Officiating at this level requires a great deal of commitment, fitness and man management skills”. These attributes would come in handy – the merger was proving stressful. “I’ve got a lot of grey hairs,” he says.

As the incoming National Residential Landlords Association chief executive, Beadle wants to change the image of landlords as bogeymen. “Landlords are under the cosh,” he told me before the postponed launch. To Beadle’s dismay, Boris Johnson had committed to abolishing no-fault evictions in December. He felt like Johnson was “punishing landlords” for a “populist quick-win”.

Shelter claimed in 2017 that 78 per cent of new homelessness cases stem from a private tenancy eviction. But landlords argue they are victims of other policy failures upstream. Welfare cuts meant tenants were more likely to get into arrears. Legal cuts meant “Section 8” evictions – for arrears or antisocial behavior – became slow to attain through the courts. “There is a certain element of landlords being blamed for something that is the result of other policy measures,” Stewart says.

Now, Beadle is lobbying to make Section 8 evictions quicker. He’s already liaised with the elite No. 10 Policy Unit on the upcoming “Renters’ Reform Bill,” speaking with ministers before the Queen’s Speech.

A proliferation of new tenant campaigners – Acorn, the London Renters Union, Generation Rent and more – are determined to block him. “Our strength is not going to come from being able to persuade ministers behind closed doors, but by a movement on the streets,” says Jonny Butcher, a founder of Acorn Sheffield, which physically blocks evictions.

Kirsty’s eviction inflicted an emotional toll. “I was feeling anxious and stressed,” she says. She joined the LRU, which helped file an appeal, and became a spokesperson. When Sky News anchor and landlord Jayne Secker accused millennials of not having the “skills to rent,” Kirsty told her she was “patronising.” The clip quickly went viral.

But in the end it was too late for Kirsty. A few weeks after the government announced plans to end no-fault evictions, the door to her first apartment clicked shut for the last time.

For Butcher, the fight continues. He says abolishing Section 21 is “meaningless” without rent control. In his view, the rights of a tenant to a home outweigh the rights of a landlord to an income. He says: “I can imagine [the NRLA] are a little bit worried now. They’ve had it pretty good for the last thirty years – and the tide is beginning to change.”


What's actually in the UK government’s bailout package for Transport for London?

Wood Green Underground station, north London. Image: Getty.

On 14 May, hours before London’s transport authority ran out of money, the British government agreed to a financial rescue package. Many details of that bailout – its size, the fact it was roughly two-thirds cash and one-third loan, many conditions attached – have been known about for weeks. 

But the information was filtered through spokespeople, because the exact terms of the deal had not been published. This was clearly a source of frustration for London’s mayor Sadiq Khan, who stood to take the political heat for some of the ensuing cuts (to free travel for the old or young, say), but had no way of backing up his contention that the British government made him do it.

That changed Tuesday when Transport for London published this month's board papers, which include a copy of the letter in which transport secretary Grant Shapps sets out the exact terms of the bailout deal. You can read the whole thing here, if you’re so minded, but here are the three big things revealed in the new disclosure.

Firstly, there’s some flexibility in the size of the deal. The bailout was reported to be worth £1.6 billion, significantly less than the £1.9 billion that TfL wanted. In his letter, Shapps spells it out: “To the extent that the actual funding shortfall is greater or lesser than £1.6bn then the amount of Extraordinary Grant and TfL borrowing will increase pro rata, up to a maximum of £1.9bn in aggregate or reduce pro rata accordingly”. 

To put that in English, London’s transport network will not be grinding to a halt because the government didn’t believe TfL about how much money it would need. Up to a point, the money will be available without further negotiations.

The second big takeaway from these board papers is that negotiations will be going on anyway. This bail out is meant to keep TfL rolling until 17 October; but because the agency gets around three-quarters of its revenues from fares, and because the pandemic means fares are likely to be depressed for the foreseeable future, it’s not clear what is meant to happen after that. Social distancing, the board papers note, means that the network will only be able to handle 13 to 20% of normal passenger numbers, even when every service is running.

Shapps’ letter doesn’t answer this question, but it does at least give a sense of when an answer may be forthcoming. It promises “an immediate and broad ranging government-led review of TfL’s future financial position and future financial structure”, which will publish detailed recommendations by the end of August. That will take in fares, operating efficiencies, capital expenditure, “the current fiscal devolution arrangements” – basically, everything. 

The third thing we leaned from that letter is that, to the first approximation, every change to London’s transport policy that is now being rushed through was an explicit condition of this deal. Segregated cycle lanes, pavement extensions and road closures? All in there. So are the suspension of free travel for people under 18, or free peak-hours travel for those over 60. So are increases in the level of the congestion charge.

Many of these changes may be unpopular, but we now know they are not being embraced by London’s mayor entirely on their own merit: They’re being pushed by the Department of Transport as a condition of receiving the bailout. No wonder Khan was miffed that the latter hadn’t been published.

Jonn Elledge was founding editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.