Economy Scrutiny Committee December 2021: Licence to bill? 

Grace of Team SF probes mishandled consultations, the need for multilingualism and the myth of the good landlord at December’s Economy Scrutiny Committee.

The focus of this post is one item – the Selective Licensing Consultation.  However, at the end I’m going to run through the other items covered and provide some thoughts (but, for the sake of you, dear reader, I won’t summarise each one as we would be here for as long as the actual meeting. Nobody wants that).

Selective Licencing

What is selective licensing?

Selective licensing applies to a designed areas of a local authority’s patch (in Manchester it’s capped at 20% of the city). All private landlords in that area must obtain a licence or face a fine. Basically, this is a way for the local authorities to self-finance the quality and suitability of rented homes.  There are certain criteria that need to be demonstrated for an area to be deemed suitable for selective licensing (low housing demand, high levels of crime, deprivation, anti-social behaviour, poor condition of rented properties etc.).

Why can’t this happen everywhere?  Well, as stated during the committee, you can apply for borough-wide licensing, but this needs to be backed up with strong evidence. This doesn’t mean, however, that I think the scheme, or similar schemes, shouldn’t happen everywhere.  As the North West branch of ACORN say:

“If you need a licence to sell alcohol or to drive a taxi, you should need a licence to let a house”.

Cllr Doswell (Fallowfield) also asked how to prevent the cost of schemes such as this resulting in landlords raising the rent in order to pay for it.  The response was that, whilst there is no way to prevent them from doing this, it’s not a pattern that has been seen in other areas where the scheme has been implemented. Rents are rising though…

Selective Licensing Consultation One: A big flop

The agenda item today centred on the outcome of the consultation prior to any final decision on the selective licensing being put in place – this is a legal requirement.  The initial consultation was carried out remotely, had low turn out and disproportionately represented landlord as opposed to tenants.  Therefore, the consultation was carried out  again – and this is in no doubt a good thing, a recognition that things can be done better  I was impressed as well with the way which Cllr Hughes (Gorton and Abbey Hey) actively spoke up about the behaviour of landlords in the initial meetings.  He voiced that the landlords showed little care for the properties and were often distant, and then suddenly appeared the opposite of distant at the initial online consultation, reportedly shouting down anyone speaking against them and borderline verbally abusing Cllr Reid (also Gorton and Abbey Hey) when she pointed out that the licencing is really not a high concern for landlords who genuinely look after their properties and tenants.

Selective Licensing Consultation Two: the importance of multilingual consultations

The second consultation had a much higher response rate and, unsurprisingly, showed that tenants were very much in favour of the licensing, but landlords were not.  One issue mentioned was that many residents in one of the key areas (the flats above shops on Hyde Road) did not speak English as a first language so their responses to door-knocking enquiries were low.  Whilst I understand that it would require further funds, my immediate response to this is to then get people who speak their language.  The function of this licensing is to serve the community, and, in fact, one of the criteria which can be used to apply for selective licensing is a high level of migration into the area.  If the purpose of this is to make things better for those who have migrated into the area, then it seems paramount that extra steps should be taken to actively try to include these people in the sample.  Finding someone’s native language, sourcing a translator, and then returning to complete the discussion takes more time and funding, but even the practice of doing some models the fundamental purpose of selective licencing; helping to support the vulnerable. 

Selective Licencing and EPC (Energy Performance Certificate) Ratings

EPC ratings of F and G cannot be privately rented in any circumstances.  However, under normal private rent conditions, there is no official check on this – it’s only something the council would become aware of if there was a tenancy complaint, as noted by Cllr Shilton Godwin.  Under Selective Licencing, the EPC rating needs to be proved to be E or above. 

In 2020, a national government consultation proposed that the minimum EPC energy efficiency rating should be C for new tenancies by 2025, and that this needs to expand to all existing tenancies by 2028.  This ambition underwhelms.  Selective Licensing could serve as an opportunity for the genuine ambitious change which MCC frequently claims to aspire towards.  As Cllr Shilton Godwin mentioned, 30% of Manchester’s carbon emissions come from homes, whereas nationally this number sits much lower at 15%.  This is clearly a vital issue which needs to be addressed, and Selective Licensing could offer one potential testing ground.

It is no secret that the private rented sector is tricky for local authorities, especially when it comes to attempting to reduce city-wide emissions. However, we are living in an era of a climate emergency, and yet the MCC mindset when it comes to tackling emissions remains stuck.  This is particularly true when it comes to the private rented sector which in over the past 25 years has sky-rocketed as a percentage of the city’s housing stock it claims.  Discussions about housing from the council at times still echo (or aspire?) to the outdated reality that private rented houses are not the biggest of the fish to fry when it comes to managing housing emissions.  We have heard scrutiny committees acknowledge the ‘challenge’ of retrofitting the private sector – but little sense of how it could use its influence to do something about that. Yes, it will be far harder than for council-owned housing associations but Selective Licencing is an opportunity to learn lessons learned about how to work with private rented landlord and bring about heftier change.  There is a chance here to pilot energy efficiency strategies – such as changing the way retrofitted is financed and managed.

The Bigger Picture: The Myth of the Good Landlord

Now for the idealistic chat.  It was mentioned that there was no need for the scheme to occur city-wide, as it was only really to catch the “bad” landlords, not the “good” ones.  Realistically, I don’t think a good landlord really exists, just maybe a less bad one.  You can read more on this here, but basically, it comes down to the fact that it is hoarding of housing stock in an inherently exploitative way, and the commitment of landlordism to making profit off of other people’s housing needs whilst performing no genuine service.  Whilst I’m wary of supporting the anarchist writer Kropotkin too much because he was a Massive Sexist ™, I do find stock in his “Property is theft” theory, which is roughly the idea that one should not own what one does not use.  In this context, one should not own (hoard) a house when someone else is the person genuinely using it.  If you need it, its yours, if you don’t need it, give it to someone who does.

As for stopping the rent controls getting passed on to tenants, whilst I’m glad to see this hasn’t been seen in other areas, I still think there needs to be a formal mechanism in place to prevent this from happening.  The questionable ethic of landlordism doesn’t fill me with confidence when it comes to trusting that the landlord won’t put up rents to cover the costs of selective licensing.  It’s very hard to pinpoint in specific cases why a landlord may choose to raise the rent – and they can just lie about the reason behind it, so how this mechanism would look in practice, I’m not sure.  If only rent controls could be put in place nationally…or, as GM Housing Action have said, a “People’s rented sector”.  A girl can dream.  Can I have that for Christmas?

Comprehensive Spending Review Funding and Budget Update

It’s hard to make full evaluative comments as the Council’s budget won’t be set until later in December, where the national government will complete the local government settlement.  It was noted in the agenda that this will “reflect the fact that the Council has declared a climate emergency by making carbon reduction a key consideration in the Council’s planning and budget proposals”.  Watch this space for more on that. 

The tone from the meeting itself was that the budget this year appears better than previous years, especially those during earlier austerity cuts, but this does not mean the budget is actually good, and it’s too early to know how COVID and its economic impacts will impact this budget’s ability to serve the needs of Manchester.

Innovation GM

To summarise Innovation GM: lots of vagueness and buzzwords with unclear substance and the rhetoric of inward investment remains present.

I got excited a few times when I saw the word “eco-systems” and then promptly returned to my stupor when I realised that they were talking about business eco-systems with the occasional green buzzword.  In my last post I voiced frustration that the committee just didn’t talk about the environment.  This time (although there were still many things written in the agenda which I hoped would be discussed) they did talk about the environment a few times.  But, somehow, they still managed to say nothing at all.  I would say that’s impressive, but it’s getting a bit of an old trick.  Learn to do backflip or something.

Covid Economy Recovery SitRep

Covid still sucks. 

It was mentioned in the meeting that in March there will be a report on the airport in terms of its economic recovery and unemployment.  However, in the agenda document it was noted that the WHO had identified the need to discuss the economic recovery of the airport alongside tackling a climate emergency.  Unsurprising that this dichotomy was not mentioned in the meeting itself.  For more on this topic, take a look at CEM’s Manchester Airport vs The Carbon Budget report.

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