I’m a big fan of old black and white films, with a particular fondness for British ones. For me they conjure up simpler times before I was born, where the characters all dressed like my mum and dad in big hats, pencil skirts, chunky glasses and there was seemingly, no knife crime, no child sex offenders, nobody off their heads on Charlie yelling threats down their mobile phone outside the betting shop.
One favourite social commentary that always gets a re-watch whenever it comes around, “I’m alright Jack”, the Boulting Brother’s comedy about a clueless posh ingenue trying to make his way in a world of corrupt upper class company directors, trade union officials promoting Socialism that they don’t understand (“Russia? All them corn fields and ballet in the evening”) and Terry Thomas’s sublime and snobbish Human Resources manager who hates his resources. (Sort of chap that sleeps in his vest) Not a million miles from many human resources people I’ve met.
The staggeringly naïve hero, Stanley Windrush (it was 1956 – how’s that for social commentary?) ends up being so disenchanted by all the corruption and incompetence, that he abandons his career ambitions and retires from the world to live in a nudist colony, free from any challenges more complex than peeling potatoes with a metal bowl covering his privates.
Ladies and gentlemen? This week I became Stanley Windrush, upon reading the news that the government intend to allow landlords to build an extra two stories on existing properties, without planning permission.
I had previously read about plans to allow homeowners to do it in an attempt to deal with the housing shortage, by allowing families to expand as they saw fit, a pointless enough idea on its own but only this week it was clarified that they were also extending this boon to the PRS.
Giving the rogue landlord community carte blanche to build whatever they like and rent it out, is akin to giving a Monkey a screwdriver and asking them to adjust the gyroscope on an ICBM.
The conventional landlord community who might happily accept this concession usually argue that the rogues represent a tiny percentage of the whole, a few rotten apples and I wish they would stop saying this. Percentages say nothing about the actual numbers of human beings disproportionately affected by their activities on any given day.
To give these people a free hand is an absolute disaster.
Working in the Shadow Private Rented Sector you see the most astonishing things on a daily basis. Homes carved up with stud walling in such perverse ways that many is the time I’ve popped my head out of a window, to see an EHO looking out of another window, while we try to work out where in the building we actually are.
If you look at the photo that accompanies this article you will see something I took whilst looking up from drawing money from a cash machine near my house, a room sub-divided by a partition that runs down the centre of the window, so each room occupant has half a window each.
This is a very common sign, something you can see quite regularly if looking for them is what you do for a living.
I’ve seen 32 people in a 2 bed flat, where the landlord removed the bath to get an extra bunk bed in, 46 people in what used to be a 6 bed children’s home and 30 people in a 3 bed house where the entire floor space was covered in mattresses, which were being rented out on a time basis, as the occupants were on shift work.
That’s what these people do, they convert properties to cram as many people in as possible and increase the rental income.
This daft new plan has just given them the green light to do even more of the same. To extend their dodgy empire and create rabbit hutch accommodation, that they can cram more people into, away from the prying eyes of housing enforcement and licensing teams.
Rogue landlords are not criminal masterminds. Watching the Netflix series Ozark recently, one of the characters said “These people aren’t geniuses, they’re just pathological liars on the path of least resistance”, which for me perfectly summed up your average rogue landlord.
They simply see every space as an opportunity to make money, regardless of safety and regulation. They know they will always be able to find desperate people, priced out of the normal rental market, who have no alternative but to accept such conditions.
Its always about the money and with this new plan, government have just given them new opportunities to exploit people and place them at risk.
Such lack of foresight could perhaps be forgiven where politicians are just unaware of the problem but the industry magazine Inside Housing this week brought to our attention some quite astonishing views of staggering venality.
Robert Jenrick announced that these new plans would deliver “High quality homes”. You don’t have to be a housing worker to guess that is unlikely to even be in the vicinity of truth but such a statement is even more bare faced, when you know that a report has been published by his own department, which finds:-
“Permitted development conversions do seem to create worse-quality residential environments than planning permission conversions in relation to a number of factors widely linked to the health, well-being and quality of life of future occupiers”.
As Martin Hilditch says in the Inside Housing piece:-
“Just pause for a minute to let that sink in – maybe find somewhere soundproof if they make you want to scream”
Or indeed, retire to a nudist colony.
Mr Jenrick completely disregarding such findings and insisting that this new plan will, I repeat “Deliver high quality homes”.
Friday’s guardian also summing it up with this title to their write up on this madness:-
“Our slum future: the planning shakeup set to blight English housing”.
So it looks like our urban landscape is literally about to change, as storey is added to storey and rogue landlord cram so many more people in, that there will be a real danger, when opening the door, of re-enacting that classic scene from another black and white film, Night at the opera, where the Marx brothers squeeze so many into a ships cabin that all tumble out on the floor.
By Ben Reeve Lewis