In praise of politics

By - Wednesday 8th April, 2015

Robert Ward speaks from experience when he says that engaging with our political system matters

Voting in Hackney.
Photo by Alex Lee, used under Creative Commons licence.

Politics is important. Not ‘important’, like not forgetting mum’s birthday, ‘important’ like life and death. On a scale of one to ten, it’s ten.

How could it not be? It’s about taking the big, difficult decisions, about making the world a better place.

A minority view, I know. Just why was shown at the scrutiny meeting of Croydon Council’s decision to license landlords. The subject may not be up there with World Peace, but it interests me.

People are sometimes good and sometimes bad. Unexpected things happen. Plans change

Let’s start from unavoidable truths. We are dealing with people living their lives. People are sometimes good and sometimes bad. Unexpected things happen. Plans change. Agreements entered into in good faith become more onerous due to circumstances.

Landlords sometimes remove tenants when the tenants want to stay. Tenants break agreements – I’ve yet to find one that stuck to all the terms. Hear two sides of a story and both parties believe it’s the other guy’s fault.

A few anecdotes stoke up passions and demand for action. But is there really a problem, if so what is it and how should it be fixed?

Most politicians have a default, ideology-based solution

Sadly, complexity reigns. Issues are conflated, opinions divided. In our case, short tenure, anti-social behaviour by tenants, inexperienced landlords, shortage of housing and more. Difficult problems are called difficult for a reason.

Then there’s party politics. Most politicians have a default, ideology-based solution. Labour favour heavier regulation, Tories lean more towards market solutions. There is a place for both, but most politicians make up their mind before even assessing the problem.

In our case the Labour Party have one of their favourite targets. Landlords are ‘rogues’ enriching themselves by preying on tenants ‘forced’ to live in homes that aren’t ‘decent’, probably Tories to boot. An election approaches; ‘cracking down’ on ‘rogue’ landlords (again) is familiar territory. Cllr Butler restricted herself to just such general politicking, ignoring the subject at hand.

Statistical evidence can sometimes rescue us, if we can find it

No matter that there is existing legislation, enforcement costs money from squeezed budgets. Easier to scapegoat landlords, raise money and create the perception of action.

What’s more, the council is laying off staff. Charging landlords and using the money to keep some of them is attractive. Unsurprisingly Council staff is supportive.

Statistical evidence can sometimes rescue us, if we can find it. Often, as in this case, I was able to dig out useful but not conclusive data. Council staff looked at their shoes when I pointed out that they had no reliable evidence at all.

Cllr Cummings asked if there will be a reduction in anti-social behaviour as a result of the scheme

As usual though, statistics are selectively quoted to justify a mind already made up, rather than to illuminate. Confusing for the voter, who gets baffled and loses interest, or resorts to their own ideology based position.

Solutions are rarely simple anyway. Well intentioned actions may have unexpected consequences outweighing the benefits. Might the extra burden on landlords cause them to leave the borough? How much will rents rise as a result? Might it work? Will we ever know?

The short answer is we probably won’t. So much happens that influences our chosen measure of success that the case is likely to be forever moot. Rather cleverly I thought, Cllr Cummings asked if there will be a reduction in anti-social behaviour as a result of the scheme. Since the loophole being exploited by the Council demands that to be so, the Council employee confirmed that there would. Watch this space, but don’t hold your breath.

Lastly, there’s the political process itself. That it is possible to see the evidence and for the public to attend Council meetings is great. But at the end of the day, no matter how poor the case, the ruling party can push it through. Published Council documents are not balanced business cases anyway; they are justifications for a decision already made, designed to prevent legal challenge. A judicial review is the only route left, prohibitively expensive for an individual.

Listen to the other side’s views. Accept your preconceived notions could be wrong

But that’s life and that’s democracy. At the end of the day you can lose. But you live to fight another day, and make choices.

Landlords can choose to move to other boroughs. Tenants may choose to rush in to a borough free of anti-social behaviour. There is a Council election in a few years. That’s the way things work. Mistakes are made, but also good decisions. Sometimes bad luck strikes, but sometimes things work out better than expected. Churchill said that democracy is the worst system of government – apart from all the others. It has made us who we are, for which we should be thankful.

So if you think this whole frustrating but vital process might interest you, I suggest you pick a subject in which you are interested, one small enough for you to understand the associated issues. Climate change for example is too tough.

Dig deep into it. Gather data. Listen to the other side’s views. Accept your preconceived notions could be wrong. Go to public meetings; even write an article for the Croydon Citizen.

Above all, don’t get downhearted. I lost this one but I have had victories, which more than make up for the occasional setback. Nobody said changing the world was easy.

Robert Ward

Robert Ward

Engineer and project manager specialised in helping businesses make better strategic decisions and improve safety, quality and effectiveness. Conservative Party Councillor representing Selsdon and Addington Village on Croydon Council. He tweets as @moguloilman.

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  • Sean Creighton

    Yes Robert you lost this one. Well most of us lose most of the time in trying to influence Council decision making. But we have to keep on trying. On the landlords issue I fundamentally disagree with you. Action is needed against the problems the ever growing private rented sector is throwing up. The Council decided to use the powers it has available to it. Of course landlords are going to object. But it brings them into line with all other businesses, good or bad, that need licences to operate. Whatever the individual circumstances of a landlord the basic aim is to make a profit out of people’s need for a home. Rents are creeping up in Croydon without any improvement in conditions. Renting property is an investment option within the capitalist system, and as with any other investment there are risks. Small ‘good’ landlords are crying ‘foul’. If you do not like the scheme then sell up – preferably for owner-occupation; or let the Council or a housing association manage your property for you. One buy-to-let landlord has recently admitted that each property only costs him £150 a month, so if he is charging £1,200 a he is making a big profit. The Croydon licence fee is just a business expense of between £70-£150 a year, which is off-settable against tax. It has been a shame that the small landlords who attended the Scrutiny Committee meeting at which Cllr Cummings raised his points have allowed themselves to be the front line troops behind which large scale and bad landlords can hide. Small landlords have consistently said that they want action against bad landlords. The licence fee is a small contribution for them to pay to enable the Council to take action. Cllr Cummings and his fellow Tory member on the Committee badly let down the small landlords they claimed to be supporting. Rather than make the issue party political they decided not to press for any detailed amendments to the scheme, like my licence fee proposals that would have reduced the cost to good landlords and strengthened the existing schemes designed to encourage good landlordism. .As I told the Committee ‘Bad an extreme form of anti-social behaviour.’ Good landlords should welcome the scheme to help clean up their collective image.

  • Robert Ward

    Hi Sean,
    We obviously disagree on large parts of this. Leaving aside overthrowing the capitalist system, here are some of the things we might have some common ground:

    There are problems with housing, especially in London. Large numbers of people want to live in a relatively small area, housing has not been built to meet that demand. Solution, build more houses.

    The private rented sector has grown significantly over the last decade or so. There are issues with the professionalism of some landlords, the criminality of others, security of tenure, the quality of some dwellings and anti-social behaviour by tenants.

    I do not believe that landlord licensing addresses any of these. There is no evidence that any of the existing licensing schemes have made any difference, either the supposedly selective schemes like Newham or the licensing of HMOs as already in force in Croydon.

    Existing legislation is largely not enforced. I would welcome more enforcement in some aspects because it would make my life easier. Removing bad landlords, who btw won’t register anyway would be good, also improvement notices would encourage landlords who aren’t clear on their responsibilities to do the necessary work.

    Tenants will now find landlords will have to be much more in their faces if a neighbour complains, and could even find themselves evicted because of it. They weren’t informed of that when they ticked the box that said they thought licensing was a good thing.

    Less palatable is your view if you don’t like it sell up. Selling up is obviously an option, thankfully we are a free country and that is a judgement any landlord can make. I see it as the other end of the scale to, if you don’t like it live somewhere else.

    I think this would be actually counterproductive in that we need more investment in housing, not less, and landlords have been a very large source for this, in particular in renovating old Victorian houses and reconfiguring to flats.

    This is one of those policies that makes some people feel better about themselves because they feel they have soaked one of their favourite targets. But the bottom line is that the scheme adds cost, does not solve any problems and will make some worse.