While everyone was focused on Brexit, Britain’s renters received an early Christmas present

Or ANY week! Image: Getty.

On Tuesday night, the government made some technical changes to the Tenant Fees Bill which barely anyone noticed.

But they should. Because, with these changes, the ban on tenant fees will save private renters collectively millions of pounds.

In 2016 the Chancellor announced a ban on letting fees to great fanfare.

And quite right too: Shelter research shows on average private renters in England had to pay £246 in letting agent fees, and families had to pay even more.

But since that announcement, the average renter can be excused for being a bit confused as to what happened next, when they continued finding themselves slapped with enormous fees.

In fact, politicians were still debating what should be in the deal, and it has been watered down quite considerably.

The problem was that there was a gaping loophole smack bang in the middle of the bill. Something called a “Default Fee” would have allowed landlords and agents to carry on charging private renters even after the ban had happened.

These are charges for things like losing a key or breaking part of your tenancy agreement.

The problem was there were initially no real controls on how big these charges could be. So you got people being charged £100 for “cobweb removal” and £10 to iron curtains. (These aren’t jokes: feast your eyes on the top ten.) Inevitably then, agents would exploit this loophole – and they even said so themselves.


This all meant that renters would have remained at the mercy of agents and landlords.

But this is where organisations like Shelter, Citizens Advice and Generation Rent come in. Together we raised our serious concerns about this to the government. Liberal Democrat & Labour Peers also worked tirelessly behind the scenes and in Parliamentary debates to make the case to government that default fees needed tightening.

And, lo and behold, the government listened to these concerns and acted.

On Tuesday night it stepped in by tabling amendments to the ban which now tightly define what makes a default fee.

That means the only things that can be charged as default fees are lost keys and late rent. So agents and landlords who were planning on drawing up a list of make-believe charges now simply can’t.  

In our eyes, this fully closes the default fees loophole once and for all. This is a big win and a true testament to cross-party working.

Deposits, capped

As well as doing away with the default fee loophole, the government also put forward amendments to cap security deposits at five weeks’ rent instead of six.

Seeing as we all know the astronomical cost of renting, this is a big deal and also very welcome.

Shelter research shows it is in fact the equivalent of £150 or more in over half of local authorities.

The final amendment laid yesterday introduced some additional protections for renters around holding deposits. This is the refundable deposit used to reserve a property before the tenancy agreement is signed.

Following these changes, when a tenancy isn’t going ahead, a landlord or agent will have to set out in writing their reasons for retaining some of the holding deposit within seven days of deciding not to go ahead with the tenancy. This will give clarity to renters and make it easier for them to challenge if they feel their money has been withheld unfairly.

Thanks to the recent changes, which were the result of true cross-party collaboration, the government is set to deliver a huge victory for renters. We hope this will become law by January next year and be in force later in the Spring.

There’s no doubt this bill will make renting fairer and more affordable for all renters. But it must be just the beginning.

Greg Beales is campaign director at the housing charity Shelter.

 
 
 
 

“Every twitch, breath or thought necessitates a contactless tap”: on the rise of the chain conffeeshop as public space

Mmmm caffeine. Image: Getty.

If you visit Granary Square in Kings Cross or the more recent neighbouring development, Coal Drops Yard, you will find all the makings of a public space: office-workers munching on their lunch-break sandwiches, exuberant toddlers dancing in fountains and the expected spread of tourists.

But the reality is positively Truman Show-esque. These are just a couple examples of privately owned public spaces, or “POPS”,  which – in spite of their deceptively endearing name – are insidiously changing our city’s landscape right beneath us.

The fear is that it is often difficult to know when you are in one, and what that means for your rights. But as well as those places the private sector pretends to be public space, the inverse is equally common, and somewhat less discussed. Often citizens, use clearly private amenities like they are public. And this is never more prevalent than in the case of big-chain coffeeshops.

It goes without saying that London is expensive: often it feels like every twitch, breath or thought necessitates a contactless tap. This is where Starbucks, Pret and Costa come in. Many of us find an alternative in freeloading off their services: a place to sit, free wifi when your data is low, or an easily accessible toilet when you are about in the city. It feels like a passive-aggressive middle-finger to the hole in my pocket, only made possible by the sheer size of these companies, which allows us to go about unnoticed. Like a feature on a trail map, it’s not just that they function as public spaces, but are almost universally recognised as such, peppering our cityscapes like churches or parks.

Shouldn’t these services really be provided by the council, you may cry? Well ideally, yes – but also no, as they are not under legal obligation to do so and in an era of austerity politics, what do you really expect? UK-wide, there has been a 13 per cent drop in the number of public toilets between 2010 and 2018; the London boroughs of Wandsworth and Bromley no longer offer any public conveniences.  


For the vast majority of us, though, this will be at most a nuisance, as it is not so much a matter of if but rather when we will have access to the amenities we need. Architectural historian Ian Borden has made the point that we are free citizens in so far as we shop or work. Call it urban hell or retail heaven, but the fact is that most of us do regularly both of these things, and will cope without public spaces on a day to day. But what about those people who don’t?

It is worth asking exactly what public spaces are meant to be. Supposedly they are inclusive areas that are free and accessible to all. They should be a place you want to be, when you have nowhere else to be. A space for relaxation, to build a community or even to be alone.

So, there's an issue: it's that big-chain cafes rarely meet this criterion. Their recent implementation of codes on bathroom doors is a gentle reminder that not all are welcome, only those that can pay or at least, look as if they could. Employees are then given the power to decide who can freeload and who to turn away. 

This is all too familiar, akin to the hostile architecture implemented in many of our London boroughs. From armrests on benches to spikes on windowsills, a message is sent that you are welcome, just so long as you don’t need to be there. This amounts to nothing less than social exclusion and segregation, and it is homeless people that end up caught in this crossfire.

Between the ‘POPS’ and the coffee shops, we are squeezed further by an ever-growing private sector and a public sector in decline. Gentrification is not just about flat-whites, elaborate facial hair and fixed-gear bikes: it’s also about privatisation and monopolies. Just because something swims like a duck and quacks like a duck that doesn’t mean it is a duck. The same can be said of our public spaces.