Opinion & Thought

Here he comes, lookin’ for the rent…

…His greedy yellow eyes and his tongue all bent…*

Many years ago, when Mrs Thatcher was heaping praise on men with small firms, there was no such thing as Society, and Moving Hearts were pumping out the above lyrics, I had a room in a post-student rental house. Once a month the landlord, a builder, would appear to remove from me a wad of cash (only) at what seemed the extortionate rate of £15 per week. Standing behind him were always a couple of his larger employees, and one wondered what would happen if said wad was not forthcoming. (When the immersion tank started leaking , it took the same employees nearly three months and a flooded kitchen to appear to fix it…)

I’ve a run-down room with a two-way roof.
That man’s a thief. I’ve even got the proof.
He likes to take, he doesn’t like to give.
I have to pay him rent just to have a place to live.

Some years later in another part of the country,  I saw the other side of the deal for a different landlord (through a short liaison with his daughter). These were people living a gilded but philistine life by reaping a monthly income from a series of student houses that they had accumulated. To be fair, they worked hard, provided a decent quality of accommodation and were not unreasonable. But they still made a large income through the simple need of the less-well-off to have a pretty basic roof over their heads.

I did also see (as I have done again since) the appalling way in which some tenants treat properties. ‘To Let’ sometimes really does need an ‘i’ in the middle… That is a perennial complaint from landlords, but shocking as the results can be, one does wonder whether it is nothing more than the subliminal revenge of the ‘little people’ for being thus ripped off. There is some two-way psychology going on there: wrong though it might be, people tend not to treat things well when they have no interest in doing so.

Oh how could you treat me so cold?
Got a mortgage on my body and the deeds of my soul.

It’s still going on, as the mosaic of ‘To Let’ signs on some of the recently-built blocks of flats show, their having been sold on the euphemistically-named buy-to-let market – sometimes even at the active exclusion of would-be owner-occupiers. It may yield a good, minimal-effort income to those already with capital to invest – but when it comes at the price of damage to the social fabric of our communities, there is surely an argument for legal restraint. This is arguably one of the worst excesses of the dog-eat-dog place that Britain has been encouraged to become. And the chances of new-build developments ever establishing settled communities is an early price paid for the ‘right’ of the landlords to derive their incomes from a flow of insecure short-term lets.

It’s not only the residential sector either. The greed of such people is one factor behind the ongoing damage to our High Streets. In the small town where I live, several buildings have fallen into decaying limbo because of the intransigence of their landlords. One such building, grade II listed, used to be a pair of shops. The current owner, a property developer, wants to convert it to residential use, despite its having no off-road parking. Planning permission has so far been refused. So the rent has been set at a level that makes further retail use utterly impossible, and the developer is refusing all enquiries. In the meantime, the prominent building is falling into serious disrepair, though mercifully the vandals have yet to strike. Repeated planning applications are being submitted, presumably until the local council caves in. Another word for this is blackmail.

In another example, a project to find a community use for another long-empty retail premises is being held up by a landlord who appears to want to charge commercial rates even though he already has a tenant with a long tie-in. In both cases, the community is disadvantaged by wasted amenities and the declining appearance of the townscape.

The conflict of interests between the legitimate right of people to do as they please with their own property, and the collective good of the communities where that property comprises physical urban fabric, is not an easy issue to resolve. But at present the balance presumes far too heavily in favour of the former, who are too-easily able to externalise the costs of their self-interest onto places and people remote from their own lives. There is nothing inherently wrong with the notion of building rental, but the terms on which it is conducted in this country are long overdue for re-examination.

But the real problem is the limited vision of those who can only see personal gain in narrow, sometimes extravagant, financial terms, whether it comes at the expense of their fellow people or not.

*http://www.fabiosroom.eu/en/songs/landlord/

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