But it’s the new appointment of British Cabinet and former banker Felicity Buchan, the official Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Housing and Homelessness at the Department for Settlement, Housing and Community (DLUHC), who takes the lead. Buchan, MP for Kensington, the UK’s wealthiest constituency, is the third housing minister called to this year’s conference after the Conservative Party ousted two of its leaders in quick succession. Bhushan has only been in the position for three weeks.
The conference’s main selling point is providing insight into “the government’s plans for the future direction of the private chartered sector” according to its website, so the hall is all ears on Buchan’s speech. She is eager to please the crowd, and repeatedly stresses how important good landlords are to the tapestry of the United Kingdom.
“There could not be a more appropriate audience for me to address in my first ministerial engagement,” Buchan says. “Everyone here knows how important landlords are and how important the private renting sector is in providing for the housing needs of this country.”
Despite Buchan’s adulation, the speech was met with hostility. Many of those present shake their heads and clap at questions aimed at undermining the minister’s position. A sense of collective suffering emanates from the room as Buchan addresses the room.
“I know it’s common and fashionable to be rude about landlords, but landlords don’t like it,” said one of the participants after the minister’s speech, causing a roar of applause. Ben Biddle, president of the NRLA, laments that the owners “don’t feel very loved” right now. The mood is clear: landlords are finding it hard, and this government is making it worse.
“that it Difficult,” one of the speakers tells the audience—a sentiment recurring throughout the day. “The job has become more and more difficult over the years.”
But is this true? In the past 10 years, estate agent Savills reports that the value of property in the private rental sector in the UK has grown by 77.6%, or £605 billion. This is – just – starting to slow down. The demand for rental properties continues to increase, and private landlords are free to raise rents as often as they wish. In fact, real estate agents often brag about huge rent increases, gleefully encouraging landlords to “take advantage of record rents.”
However, the tenants face a lifetime of insecurity and unaffordable rents. The private rented sector statistically has the worst quality homes, and tenants can be evicted without cause with two months’ notice – one of the biggest causes of homelessness in the UK. The cost of living crisis only exacerbates the situation, with winter looking particularly harsh as rents continue to rise at an all-time high.
Things may have become more structured within the sector, but that only points to years when many of the ground rules did not exist. Constant government changes causing inconsistent regulations are annoying—and a complaint from several landlords I’ve spoken to—but essentially, both landlords own valuable assets and make rental income on top of that. Renters, on the other hand, are statistically more likely to experience financial hardship.
During the breaks between talks, I talk to the realtors who are attending the conference. Many echo the sentiment in the hall — that times are especially difficult for landlords who have been criticized and misunderstood — and many are frustrated that landlords sometimes get a bad rap. Everyone said they had good relationships with their tenants, but they also made up rents every time they renegotiated contracts. Others have made very shocking statements about why they feel their landlords have been given bad press.
“I think that’s part of the reason [landlords are villainised] We’re the only class of people who can be evil because you can’t go after blacks, whites and gays anymore,” says Matthew Snell, founder of Lens Property Management Ltd. “And rightly so, but you can still go after realtors.”
Other than Buchan’s speech, one major concern dominated the conference: the rent reform bill. The bill, a piece of legislation that was significantly delayed in the 2019 Conservatives’ manifesto, is set to ban so-called Section 21 evictions “without fault,” the termination of fixed lease periods, and the creation of a registry of landlords, among other things. However, it’s still not clear exactly what will be part of the bill – something that’s causing stress for renters and landlords alike.
The owners are clearly concerned, but it’s not surprising considering the amount of lobbying the NRLA has done against it. During a session on the tenants reform bill, landlords were encouraged to write to their MPs and lobby the government against the legislation. It’s a call to arms for a group of really influential people.
“We need to apply pressure, we need to write to our MPs,” said Maxine Fothergill, former president of the Association of Residential Lettings Agents. “I know the NRLA and I have form letters, and I would suggest each and every one of you… start writing to your deputies.”
They will likely find a sympathetic ear. In 2021, a quarter of Conservative MPs are property owners. In the same year, the estate tycoons donated more than £60 million to the Tories.
By the end of the conference it is clear how difficult it can be to push through fundamental reform in the private rented sector when even the smallest changes can cause mass outcry. However, the stakes are too high: the housing crisis has only worsened as homes become assets rather than homes.
If the future looks difficult for the owners, it may be because the scales are beginning to balance out.