London-wide polls, long-term local trends and national government unpopularity all suggest that Labour could very well win control of Wandsworth Council on 5 May and in the process significantly weaken Boris Johnson’s position as Prime Minister. Wandsworth might not be the beacon of local government Conservative radicalism it once was, and much of the national media will be more interested in results elsewhere in England. But the sinking of London’s most famous Tory flagship would still be a big deal.
One of the policy areas in which the local Labour campaign is seeking advantage is housing, with a promise to build 1,000 social rent council homes on council-owned land – as distinct from the mix of tenure-types the Tories are going for in their 1,000 pledge – and now a pledge to “drive out rogue landlords and drive up standards with landlord licensing“.
Private landlord licensing schemes, rather like supporting “rent controls” or talk of getting tough with “the developers”, have an obvious appeal in a city where housing conditions and affordability are enormous issues, but are easier to talk about than do. How does landlord licensing happen and what difference can it make?
In fact, Tory Wandsworth already has some landlord licensing, though it applies only to landlords of houses in multiple occupation (HMO) in the borough. As the council’s website says, an HMO licence is legally required if a property has five or more occupiers comprising two or more households, if some or all amenities such as bathrooms, toilets or cooking facilities are shared and some other criteria. There are over 600 properties on its HMO licence register. Their landlords are told to comply with a set of regulations to do with safety and services for residents.
There are, however, further landlord licensing powers available to local authorities, which other London boroughs deploy. For example, last September Enfield introduced a selective licensing scheme which applies to “all privately rented properties occupied by one or two persons or one family households” located within 14 ward areas.
The Enfield designation makes it compulsory for landlords to apply to the council for a licence for each property they are responsible for renting out unless they are already covered by the existing mandatory HMO scheme. To receive one they have to provide certain details about the properties concerned and prove that they are a “fit and proper person” to be a landlord (or letting or management agent).
In Barking & Dagenham, which also has selective licensing, the council says it must be “satisfied that the property to be licensed must be reasonably suitable for occupation”. Waltham Forest warns that “if you don’t hold a valid licence you could face an unlimited fine”. The fees charged for councils for selective property licenses are in the region of £600-£700.
“Property licensing helps ensure that private rented properties in the borough are in good condition and managed properly,” Waltham Forest says. “It also helps improve housing standards, tackle anti-social behaviour and keep our residents safe”.
Of course, councils need to devote resources to ensuring that licence terms are being adhered to – something Wandsworth Labour says it would do. And bringing in selective licensing, which is what Wandsworth Labour seems to have had in mind and for some time, means following rules set by the government. Depending on the size of the scheme, that may need secretary of state approval.
Perhaps more about exactly what Wandsworth Labour has in mind will be revealed in the coming few weeks.
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