Renters can’t wait for the government to scrap letting fees – so Hackney council is stepping in

Yay? Image: Getty.

A Labour councillor on the London Borough of Hackney’s plans to reform its rental market.

Four homes, four landlords and four completely different experiences: in my 15 years as a renter in London, I’ve experienced first-hand the good, the bad and the ugly of the private rented sector.

My experience isn’t unique. In my borough of Hackney, two in three private tenants say repairs aren’t done when needed, while their rent has rocketed by 20 per cent in just five years – far outstripping wage growth. This is a story repeated across London.

Around 32,000 homes are privately rented in Hackney, and their tenants are too often forgotten in a government housing agenda obsessed with home ownership and local government’s traditional role as a social landlord.

That’s why the government’s announcement last year that it would seek to ban extortionate, arbitrary letting agent fees was welcomed by renters and good landlords alike. If you’ve rented in London, you’ll know how vague and ridiculous these fees are. I remember baulking at my landlord’s demand for a £300 fee to renew my contract – not just from me, but from everyone else in my house. That’s why in Hackney we’re taking matters into our own hands to launch a campaign to end letting fees now.

I’m fortunate enough to now have a stable tenancy with a considerate landlord, who I know won’t hike up the rent at the end of each year, charge through the nose just to renew my tenancy or ignore my calls when the boiler breaks.

But while the Prime Minister’s new chief of staff, Gavin Barwell, said ministers were “determined” to end hidden fees, we’ve seen little action to make it happen. Renters will rightly be concerned that – like endless commitments to build new homes – these words won’t translate into delivery. The Draft Tenants’ Fees Bill announced in the Queen’s Speech hasn’t been published or given any parliamentary timetable – meaning it could still take years for any, potentially watered down, measures to come into force.


Hard-up Londoners can’t afford to wait that long. The Institute for Fiscal Studies’ report into poverty and inequality showed this week that, while incomes in the capital are 10 per cent higher than the rest of the UK, they sink below the average once unaffordable housing costs are taken into account.

That’s why this week Hackney Council became the first local authority in England to launch a voluntary ban. We’ve asked all letting agents in our borough to do the right thing and scrap these unnecessary fees ahead of national legislation.

Our first supporter, independent Stoke Newington business Julian Reid Estate Agents, are already showing how not charging these fees is good for everyone: they say it doesn’t disadvantage them against their competitors and supports their business model.

And they’re right. Research from Shelter shows that in Scotland – where fees were banned in 2012 – renters, landlords and the industry as a whole have benefited. And crucially, the evidence showed that landlords haven’t passed on the fees to tenants through increased rent.

The new housing minister, Alok Sharma, must resist the strong voice of the letting agent lobby and push through this legislation without delay. But while it’s vital action, banning fees risks tackling the symptoms, not the causes, of the housing crisis.

Ultimately, the solution to rising rents and house prices that leaves a generation of renters trapped in a cycle of unstable tenancies is to build more homes – something the government has consistently failed to do. Local government stands ready to fill that void – Hackney is already delivering more than 9,000 homes in its self-funded regeneration programme.

We’re playing our part, but we’d like to do much more to meet this ever-growing demand. The restrictions on local authorities’ ability to build new homes has exacerbated London’s housing crisis and put the brakes on any effective ways to resolve it.

Simply lifting the borrowing restrictions placed on councils would allow them to unleash a new generation of housebuilding – helping to meet demand and bring down prices. That can only be a good thing.

In the meantime, we’ll continue to stand up for tenants and make their voice heard. Scrapping letting fees is a small, welcome step towards that – but when a third of residents in my borough rent privately, they deserve more.

Councillor Sem Moema is an advisor on private renting and housing affordability to the mayor of Hackney.

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To see how a city embraces remote work, just look to Helsinki

A deeply rooted culture of trust is crucial to the success of remote work. (Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

When I speak to Anssi Salminen, an account manager who lives an hour outside Helsinki, he’s working from a wooden platform on the edge of a Finnish lake. With a blanket laid out and his laptop set up, the sun low in the sky, Anssi’s remote work arrangement seems blissful. 

“I spend around half of my time working somewhere else other than the office,” he says. “I can work from home, or on the go, and I also travel to the Netherlands once a month and work from there.

“The emphasis in my work has always been that it doesn’t matter when or where I work, as long as I get things done.”

For many people around the world, the shift to remote work was sudden, sparked by the coronavirus pandemic. Finland, however, is finding the transition much less significant. Before Covid-19, the Nordic nation already displayed impressive levels of remote working, with 14.1% of its workforce reporting usually working from home. Only the Netherlands has a comparable percentage of remote workers, while the UK lagged behind at 4.7%, and the US’s remote workforce lingered at around 3.6%

Anssi works for one of many Helsinki-based companies that offers its employees flexible policies around when and where they work. That arrangement is in part due to the Finnish capital’s thriving start-up scene. In spite of being a relatively small city by global standards it is home to over 500 technology start-ups. These companies are leading the way when it comes to keeping employees connected wherever they choose to work.

“Our company has a completely location-free working policy,” says Kasper Pöyry, the CEO of Helsinki-headquartered software company Gapps. “All meetings are made available for online participants and facilitated accordingly. Some employees have worked extensively from abroad on a working holiday, whilst others prefer the comfort and social aspects of the well-stocked office. Whatever works for our employees is what works for the company.”

Like Gapps, many Helsinki-based firms are deeply preoccupied with providing the necessary technology to attract talent in a vast and sparsely populated country. Finland has only 15 inhabitants per square kilometre, and companies understand that in order to compose teams of specialised expertise, they may have to seek talent outside of the city. Local governments take a similarly proactive stance toward technological access, and Helsinki offers free, unrestricted, high-speed Wi-Fi from city-wide hotspots, while the country as a whole boasts some of the best coverage in Europe. 

But encouraging remote work isn’t just about optimising the potential of Finland’s workforce – companies in Helsinki also recognise that flexibility has clear benefits for both staff and employees. 

“The idea of a good work-life balance is ingrained in Finnish culture,” says Johannes Anttila, a consultant at organisational think tank Demos Helsinki. “It goes back to our rich history of social dialogue between labour unions and employers, but also to an interest in delineating the rules of working life and pushing towards people being able to enjoy their private life. Helsinki has been named the best city in the world for work-life balance, and I think that this underlies a lot of the mentality around remote work.” 

For Peter Seenan, the extent to which Helsinki residents value their free time and prioritise a work-life balance prompted his move to the city ten years ago. He now works for Finnair, and points to Finland’s summer cottages as an example of how important taking time to switch off is for people in the country. These rural residences, where city residents regularly uproot to enjoy the Nordic countryside, are so embedded in Finnish life that the country boasts around 1.8 million of them for its 5.5 million residents

“Flexible and remote work are very important to me because it means that I don’t feel like I’m getting stuck in a routine that I can’t control easily,” he says. “When I’m working outside of the office I’ll go down to my local sauna and go ice swimming during the working day, typically at lunchtime or mid-morning, and I’ll feel rejuvenated afterwards… In winter time especially, flexibility is important because it makes it easier to go outside during daylight hours. It’s certainly beneficial for my physical and mental health, and as a result my productivity improves.”

The relaxed attitude to working location seems to pay off – Finland is regularly named the happiest country in the world, scoring highly on measures such as how often its residents exercise and how much leisure time they enjoy. With large swathes of unspoiled countryside and a national obsession with the outdoors, sustainability is at the forefront of its inhabitants’ minds, leading to high levels of support for measures to limit commuting. In January, Finland passed a new Working Hours Act, the goal of which was to help better coordinate employee’s work and leisure time. Central to this is cementing in law that employees can independently decide how, when, and where they work.

Yet enacting the new ruling is not as simple as just sending employees home with their laptops. For Kirsimarja Blomqvist, a professor of knowledge management at LUT University, perhaps the most fundamental feature that remote work relies upon is a deeply rooted culture of trust, which Helsinki’s residents speak of with pride. The anecdotal evidence is backed up by data which suggests that Finland boasts one of the highest levels of trust and social cohesion in Europe, and equality and transparency have always been key cornerstones of political thought in the country.

“Trust is part of a national culture in Finland – it’s important and people value it highly,” she explains. “There’s good job independence, and people are valued in terms of what they do, not how many hours they work for. Organisations tend to be non-hierarchical, and there is a rich history of cooperation between trade unions, employers, and employees to set up innovative working practices and make workers feel trusted and valued. 

“It’s now important that we ensure that this trust can continue to be built over technology, when workers might have been more used to building it face-to-face.”

As companies begin to look hopefully toward a post-Covid future, the complexities of remote work are apparent. Yet amid issues of privacy, presenteeism, and social isolation, the Helsinki model demonstrates the potential benefits of a distanced working world. The adjustment to remote work, if continued after the crisis, offers a chance to improve companies’ geographical diversity and for employers to demonstrate trust in their workforce. On these issues, Blomqvist believes other cities and employers can learn a lot from Helsinki.

“People are now beginning to return to their workplaces, but even as they do they are starting to consider the crisis as a jumping point to an even more remote future,” she says. “The coronavirus pandemic has been an eye-opener, and people are now interested in learning from Finland’s good practices… We are able to see the opportunity, and the rapid transition to remote work will allow other countries to do the same.”