Tenant Fees Bill

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John Stevenson: I will make just a short contribution, Madam Deputy Speaker. I first draw the House’s attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. I am a solicitor at a legal practice that owns an estate agents.

As we know, Second Reading debates are about the general principles of a Bill, and that is where I want to concentrate my speech. My instinct is to be very careful about legislation of this nature, or at least to be suspicious of it—in a healthy way, I would like to think. I believe in free markets. They generally produce better services through competition, higher standards and better value for money for the consumer. The important thing about free markets is that there are lower barriers to entry, which helps to create that competitive environment, and with fewer statutory requirements, it is much easier for individuals to set up businesses and create more choice for the consumer.

Introducing regulation does, therefore, have drawbacks. As we all know, it can distort markets, increase rents and have other unintended consequences. It can reduce competition and therefore increase prices and impose barriers to entry, and it often leads to more interference and yet more regulation. A good example is the legal services market—there is far too much regulation in the provision of legal services. When I served on the Communities and Local Government Select Committee several years ago, we looked at this very issue and concluded that it was not the time for regulation, although the Committee was open-minded about the possibility and thought it something the Government should consider later.

The question, then, is whether the time is right now. Quite clearly, the Government think it is. I, too, recognise that markets are not perfect, and it is right and proper that the Government interfere and regulate where appropriate to help markets, particularly where a section of society is being adversely affected, but the goal must always be to improve matters for the consumer. We should take a bit of a history lesson. When assured shorthold tenancies were first introduced, in the 1980s, they changed the housing market dramatically. We must remember, however, that it was a much smaller market back then, with fewer landlords and fewer tenants seeking private rented accommodation. Interestingly, the legislation was introduced because there had been too much regulation and interference in the private housing market. It was an opportunity to free up the market, encourage landlords into the rented market and improve tenant choice.

I fully accept that the letting market has changed fundamentally and radically since the 1980s. Some 20% of our housing market is now in the private rented sector. In many respects, that was accelerated from about 2008 onwards. It is a very different environment. We now have accidental landlords up and down the country—people who unexpectedly have become landlords —and many more letting agencies. It is a thriving industry in a way it was not in the 1980s, and there is a host of tenants with very different needs looking for comfort in the knowledge that when they deal with letting agents they will be dealt with in properly and fairly.

We have to recognise that some letting agencies have been exploiting the deficiencies in the housing market. As everyone does, I acknowledge that the property market has changed significantly. In many respects, the whole issue of property ownership is in need of review, right across the spectrum, including the relationship between social housing and the private rented sector. Interestingly, back in 2015, when Carlisle was hit by floods, the people who were flooded did not turn to the social housing market for accommodation, even though it was available; they turned to the private sector. We should recognise, then, that the private sector has a huge contribution to make to the housing market.

It is generally accepted, however, that the time is also coming to look at the nature of assured shorthold tenancies. They were introduced in the 1980s in a different time. Perhaps that is something that in time the Government will look at. Estate agents are often letting agents as well, and it seems strange that someone could into an office were one side is regulated but the other is not.

The housing market is hugely significant at so many levels in our country. We have to recognise the importance of property as a source of taxation and that many people aspire to own their own house and get on the housing ladder and that it is also a source of capital for business investment but that the lack of housing in the various markets also affects individuals and families, as we all know.

I have concluded that we now live in such a different market that I will support the Bill. On balance, it is clearly in the interests of tenants, but it is also in the interests of good landlords and letting agents that act with integrity. I encourage the Government to ensure that the Bill preserves a competitive environment for letting agents—that is vital—and that it be enforced in a pragmatic and sensible way to the benefit of tenants and the market. I plead with the Government to ensure that we end up not with too much regulation but with effective regulation.

I believe that the Bill is the start of a sensible review of our housing market at all its various levels and with all its various requirements. I encourage the Government to look at all aspects of the property ownership markets and the taxation of property, because I think we are in danger of ending up with piecemeal legislation. The ultimate goal must be a working market that benefits everyone.

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