Dispatches – Channel 4’s flagship current affairs documentary series – has a long and distinguished history of exposing exploitation and corruption across a number of spheres of British society. But even regular viewers will have been shocked by the programme’s Monday night investigation into sub-standard rental properties.
Undertaken by Channel 4 news presenter Jon Snow – who himself has experience of working with homeless and poorly-accommodated people – the documentary looked at the rise of new ‘slum landlords’. Preying on people’s desperation and lack of options, a minority of landlords exploit the vulnerable in the provision of decrepit and unfit properties, as well as the use of initimidatory tactics to pressurise tenants into leaving their homes.
The majority of private landlords are of course perfectly respectable and provide decent, habitable homes, but the fact that some landlords can get away with such behaviour is a sign of both the desperation of the tenants involved and also the dearth of suitable housing stock in the UK. If the tenants had the option of safe, well-appointed homes they would surely take it. Prosecution of such disreputable landlords is essential, but the problem will only be solved by increased housing provision.
So where will this provision come from? The answer, surely, is a fully-formed institutional private rented sector, with new properties built specifically for this purpose.
The introduction of professional landlords would, at a stroke, improve the service levels and quality of the accommodation (it’s much harder for such companies, with higher profiles and valuable brands, to behave as the slum landlords have done) while at the same time making regulation of the sector much easier. And by giving tenants options, current landlords would be forced to bring their properties up to standard; even they can’t afford for a house to sit empty.
Now, as it happens, Barclays Capital teamed up with quango UK Regeneration last week to launch a £3 billion private rented residential vehicle, with the aim of building 20,000 new homes by 2020. The fund is currently raising equity and debt in the market and is looking to initially start on one site in the north east and two in the south east, on inner-city and town centre locations of around five acres.
The fund, which has already secured the support of housing minister Grant Shapps MP, will look to buy local authority land under the Government’s new “build now, pay later” programme, which strikes me as a good example of government working with private enterprise to kickstart development in the sector.
Apparently central to these first three sites is that they will be designed in a campus style around a core of shops and restaurants. Modern, well-appointed rental properties that form their own community within a larger one seem to be very much in line with the new paradigm of UK residential. If fewer and fewer people can afford to buy their own home, developments such as these are both necessary and ideal.
As Jon Snow said himself in an article in The Independent on Monday, it is perplexing how “society can be so consumed with the state of education and health provision in Britain, and yet turn so active a blind eye to the true state of where people actually live.”
There are no easy answers to the problem of adequate housing provision in the UK, but it strikes me that an effective institutional private sector – with the benefits it brings – is not a bad place to start.
Watch the Dispatches documentary at: http://www.channel4.com/programmes/dispatches/4od#3206353