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.

 
 
 
 

In New Zealand, climate change is driving an eco-nationalist revival

The green and pleasant land of the South Island. Image: Getty.

“Ten years ago I would have called them settler f*****g land squatters,” Mike Smith, Maori-dom’s most tenacious activist, said last November as he reflected on the agriculture industry’s central role in driving climate change. “Now I have to try and get these people on board.”

Smith is infamous for taking a chainsaw to Auckland’s most prominent tree on a damp October night in 1994 in protest of the “Pākehā” – or white European –dominated government’s fiscal envelope restraining treaty settlements. Now he’s turned his hand to another cause close-to-home for the Maori, New Zealand’s indigenous population: the environment.

“We’re super vulnerable, like we are to anything,” Smith says. “When it comes to climate change it’s like the poorest people in the world are going to be hit the hardest first, and that’s a lot of us.”

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern appears, at least rhetorically, the most sympathetic leader to his cause in a decade. In her campaign launch speech late last year, she made the future government’s position clear: “Climate change is my generation’s nuclear free moment.”

This message should resonate with followers of her Labour party: the NZ left has long nurtured an environment-orientated “culture-of-protest”. So Ardern’s call to arms was bound to gain her loyal support among children of the 1960s and ‘70s, who led the march against nuclear ship visits, spurring on the government of the time to wriggle out from the US nuclear umbrella, and place a ban on foreign nuclear ship visits.

Now, it is to the tycoons of deep sea oil exploration they aim to close NZ’s ports.

In this, Smith is not short of support locally, with marches run by grassroots organisations and international animal welfare funds beginning to gain traction with every day New Zealanders. In this, Ardern’s prediction is correct: the Coal Action Network Aotearoa (CANA), is reminiscent of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND), an earlier cluster of left-wing pacifists and nature lovers who drove the creation of the nuclear free zone.  

In December, 15,000 passionate protesters marched through the capital. And with the government’s recent ban of offshore oil exploration projects, Jeanette Fitzsimons, former Green party co-leader and the head of CANA, is optimistic about similar change to the energy and farming sectors.

The Labour-NZ First-Green party coalition seems focused on setting a new global precedent, weaning NZ away from a United States which has jettisoned the Paris Agreement. The move replicates another 20 years ago, when New Zealand’s anti-nuclear movement was central to an upsurge in New Zealand nationalism. Now, the same sense of going it alone on foreign policy is apparent both locally and in Parliament.

Dr. Gradon Diprose, a senior lecturer at Massey University, argues that this echoes an older expression of colonial nationalism, that saw “New Zealand as a land of natural abundance”. This: “eco-nationalism” is centered on “protecting certain visions of picturesque landscapes and unspoiled natural beauty”. The slogan “Clean, green New Zealand” is prevalent in popular culture and tourism marketing. The public seems to have latched onto it too, and ranked keeping NZ’s waterways “clean and green” top of a recent survey of of kiwis’ top concerns.

Three decades ago, it was the 10 July 1985 sinking of the Greenpeace flagship Rainbow Warrior that thrust local activists’ fears into the public eye, resulting in an almost nation-wide expression of climate-protectionism.


The bombing, a French intelligence operation sparked by Greenpeace’s calls for an end to foreign nuclear testing in the Pacific, galvanised a great deal of change to New Zealand’s overseas defence policies. A lack of censure from New Zealand’s Western allies drove Wellington to distance itself from the United States, while the shock of seeing a friendly nation violate NZ’s sovereignty left many at home seething.

Thirty years on, the foreign policy split throughout the Anglosphere, regarding Russian-Western relations, globalism, and the old international rules-based order, is becoming wider. Climate change is just the tip of the iceberg.

Most Kiwis you talk to will shake their heads in disapproval at US president Donald Trump’s scandalous outing last year in Helsinki. But US defiance of internationally brokered climate resolutions is something they can see clearly reflected in rural communities across the country.

The country saw records broken at both ends of the extreme weather spectrum last year. As 2018 kicked off, Kiwis sweltered through the hottest summer on record, while in Golden Bay, a small inlet near the northern tip of the South Island, residents endured the largest flood in 150 years. So, when President Trump tweets “So much for Global Warming”, the majority of New Zealanders look back fondly on NZ’s 1985 decision to boycott the “ANZUS” treaty, putting New Zealand at odds with its war-time ally America on defence legislation.

Public calls to take the same track on environmental regulation have become louder in the wake of Donald Trump’s election. The former US Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, received a frosty “unwelcome” while on a flyby to the capital in 2017, with the New York Times’ Washington correspondent, Gardiner Harris remarking: “I’ve never seen so many people flip the bird at an American motorcade as I saw today”. Protests against President Trump’s stance on climate change are beginning to gain greater traction further still, with the hundred-strong “march for science” setting the tone for the new government later that year.

New Zealand certainly isn’t afraid of radicalism, and its activists are persistent. It’s already banned single use plastics in supermarkets. Plenty more is to come, Smith says.

And yes, reform is going to inhibit sometimes vital industries: “It doesn’t matter which way you spin the dice on this, whatever’s being done is going to hurt. People who are looking for a painless way of mitigating climate change, [but] I don’t think there is one.”

But among Smith’s troupe of climate agitators, the feeling is that, without drastic change, “the land”, the heart of the Maori ethos, is going to be hurt far more.

Back in Auckland, NZ’s financial hub, an electric scooter craze is gripping the city. This, too, has gained the support of local environmentalists. In New Zealand, a national sense of pride is always coupled with a certain eccentricity. In a country this size, change always starts small.