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.

 
 
 
 

Why aren’t working class people living in cities also “left behind”?

The metropolitan elite. Image: Getty.

If you have hammer, everything’s a nail. The hammer for much of Britain’s political class and commentators is Brexit, which is meant to explain everything from social mobility to the north-south divide to attitudes to immigration to public transport investment.

However, a huge amount is lost in this sort of analysis. One particular casualty is our understanding of working-class communities. This is particularly striking in the presentation of London as being a Remain stronghold inhabited by metropolitan elites.

In fact, the reality is that working class communities, especially in cities, have been just as “left behind” as those elsewhere in the UK. Even 72 people dying in the Grenfell Tower tragedy, a preventable fire which happened within sight of Parliament, hasn’t dislodged the dominant narrative of London as a leafy cosmopolitan elite bubble.

The lazy and reductive “London is cosmopolitan elite” narrative extends well beyond the far right. This shorthand gathers into one category people who have a second home in Provence, and outsourced gig economy workers who live in Hackney. By flattening such diversity into catch-all terms, we erase the existence of working class Londoners, ethnic minorities and migrants.

The facts are stark – London has some of the highest poverty, highest pollution, and largest working class community in all of the UK. Seven of the top 11 local authorities in terms of child poverty are in London, while the capital records the highest level of air pollution in the country.

Yet the statistics are airily dismissed because a majority London residents voted Remain in the EU referendum – and remainers, of course, are all elite, especially if they live in London. By such magic thinking, three in four black people in Britain become elite because they voted to remain in the EU, a point that should perhaps give pause to even the doughtiest proponent of the everything-is-Brexit theory.

Despite our national obsession about class, Britain already had an impoverished understanding and narrative on the topic even before Brexit. Why aren’t the ethnic minority and migrant people who live in tower blocks and experience disproportionate levels of child poverty (rising to 59 per cent for Bangladeshi children) viewed as working class? Why aren’t those living in cities, or who die in preventable fires also “left behind”?

One answer is it doesn’t suit a narrative that wants to make everything about Brexit, and that only addresses class when the context is Brexit. Another is that recognising that many ethnic minorities are also working-class is not helpful when your aim is to prosecute a different argument: that Britain needs “tougher” immigration policies.

At its most extreme, this argument ties into the longstanding narrative that only white people can be British or live in Britain. Of course, this is a narrative that divides working class communities and blames ethnic minorities and migrants for all of society’s ills.

It also has a direct policy effect. It is easier to justify cuts to public services if expenditure on those services is associated with “undeserving scroungers” who don’t really count as fellow citizens.

Recent research published by the Runnymede Trust and the Centre for Labour and Social Studies shows the wider effects of this narrative. The report’s title “We Are Ghosts” are the words of Henry, a working-class Londoner in his ‘60s living in Southwark and capture a wider sense of precariousness, neglect and lack of voice in the face of London’s ongoing gentrification.

Henry happens to be white – but his experience of injustice and prejudice is shared by people of colour interviewed for the same research. Where people engaged with public services, especially housing, policing and social care, they felt treated with indignity and indifference.

Decades of blaming the poor and migrant has led to a punitive culture within our public services which affects all working-class people, white or otherwise, as they see their voices and needs  being routinely ignored.

This is one reason why we need more locally devolved services: to strengthen working class, BME and migrant voices. Terms like “co-production” may sound thinktanky, but the aim is a democratic one: to ensure that those most affected by a service – such as housing services – or decision actually have a say in how that service is delivered.

Devolution isn’t just about putting more power in local rather than national government; it’s also about devolving power more directly to people, through community organisations and charities that are often better placed to represent and understand local needs and experiences.

The British working class has been multi-ethnic for centuries. Working class communities aren’t the same everywhere but they do experience the shared conditions of lack of resources, and lack of voice or power.

By always foregrounding Brexit when we talk about class, we not only miss these shared conditions among working class people across the UK, but deflect from the solutions that might actually address them.

If we’re serious about actually tackling race and class inequalities and prejudice, we need to put down the Brexit – or any other – hammer. Instead we need to change how we think and talk about race and class, invest more in the safety net, and redesign public services to provide those using them with greater dignity, voice and power.

Dr Omar Khan is director of the Runnymede Trust