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I went to a landlords’ conference during a housing crisis. Here’s what I found

With a key tenants’ rights bill set to go before MPs, what is going through the minds of the UK’s property class?

Ruby Lott-Lavigna
23 November 2022, 2.03pm

Outside the national landlord conference in Coventry

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Photo by author

Times are difficult for landlords. Mortgage interest rates are sky-high. The Renters Reform Bill will make evicting problem tenants even harder. Rogue landlords are muddying the name of the good, honest landlords who provide a vital service. New government legislation around energy efficiency could mean expensive improvement works. The future looks tough.

This, anyway, is what you might believe if you had attended the 2022 Landlord Conference – the biggest conference for private landlords in the UK, run by National Residential Landlord Association (NRLA). Taking place in Coventry days before the UK government’s autumn statement, the conference covered a range of topics – from buy-to-let mortgages and energy efficiency, to housing law and the Renters Reform Bill. It is the first in-person conference to take place since the event launched two years ago, and hosts around 500 landlords, agents and industry figures.

In the last ten years, the private rented sector has grown by 45%. Between 2008/09 and 2020/21, it went from 3.1 million to 4.4 million households, making private rent the second most common type of housing tenure in England. As the number of privately rented houses in the UK has grown, so has the number of landlords. With landmark legislation going through parliament to bolster tenants' rights, and a rented sector reaching breaking point, what plagues their minds?

The conference

It’s pouring with rain when I arrive at the Coventry Building Society Stadium. The 40,000-capacity stadium is home to Coventry City FC and the Wasps, a rugby union team that recently entered administration. Inside, people mill around a large conference room being served bacon sandwiches and filter coffee. Many will be here to network with fellow landlords and listen to speakers like Paul Shamplina, founder of Landlord Action, or David Cox, legal and compliance director at Rightmove.

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Landlords attend the NRLA's national landlord conference.

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Photo by author

But it’s new UK cabinet appointment and former banker Felicity Buchan, officially the parliamentary undersecretary of state for housing and homelessness in the Department of Levelling Up, Housing and Community (DLUHC), who holds the headline spot. Buchan, the MP for the UK’s wealthiest constituency Kensington, is the third housing minister to be invited to this year's conference after the Conservative Party ousted two of its leaders in quick succession. Buchan has only been in the job for three weeks.

The conference’s major selling point is providing some insight into “the government’s plans for the future direction of the private rented sector” according to its website, so the hall is all ears for Buchan’s speech. She is keen to appease the audience, and frequently emphasises how important good landlords are to the fabric of the UK.

“There couldn't be a more appropriate audience for me to address on my first ministerial engagement,” says Buchan. “Everyone here knows how important landlords are and how important the private rented sector is to providing the housing needs of this country.”

Despite Buchan’s flattery, the speech is met with hostility. Many attendees shake their heads and clap at questions aimed to cut down the minister’s position. The room oozes a sense of collective hardship as Buchan addresses the room.

“I know it’s popular and fashionable to be rude about landlords, but landlords don't like it,” says one panellist following the minister’s talk, causing a roar of applause. Ben Beadle, chair of the NRLA, laments that landlords aren’t “feeling very loved” at the moment. The mood is clear: landlords have it hard, and this government is only making it worse.

“It's hard,” one speaker tells the audience – a recurring sentiment throughout the day. “The job has gotten harder over the years.”

But is that true? In the last ten years, estate agent Savills reports that the value of properties in the UK’s private rented sector has grown by 77.6%, or £605bn. This has only – just – started to slow. Demand for rental properties continues to increase, and private landlords are free to raise rents as much as they desire. Indeed, estate agents are often boasting of huge rent rises, gleefully encouraging landlords to “take advantage of record rents”.

Tenants, however, face a lifetime of insecurity and unaffordable rents. The private rented sector statistically has the worst quality homes, and tenants can be evicted for no reason with two months' notice – one of the biggest causes of homelessness in the UK. The cost of living crisis is only exacerbating the situation, with the winter looking particularly tough as rents continue to rise by their highest rate on record.

Things may have become more regulated within the sector, but this only points to years when many essential rules didn’t exist. Constant government changes causing inconsistent regulations are annoying – and a complaint of many landlords I spoke to – but fundamentally, landlords both own a valuable asset and gain rental income on top of that. Tenants, on the other hand, are statistically likely to be financially struggling.

During the breaks between talks, I speak to landlords attending the conference. Many echo the sentiment felt in the hall – that times are particularly difficult for the oft-criticised and misunderstood landlord – and many feel disheartened that landlords sometimes get a bad reputation. All said they had good relationships with their tenants, but also had put up rents every time they had renegotiated contracts. Others made quite shocking statements about why they felt landlords received bad press.

“I think part of the reason [landlords are villainised] is that we’re the only class of people that can be villainised because you can’t go after blacks, whites, gays anymore,” Matthew Snell, founder of Lens Property Management Ltd, tells me. “And rightly so, but you can still go after landlords.”

Other than Buchan’s speech, one major concern dominated the conference: the Renters Reform Bill. The bill, a piece of hugely delayed legislation promised in the 2019 Conservative manifesto, is set to ban so-called section 21 “no-fault” evictions, end fixed tenancy periods, and create a register of landlords, among other things. However, it is still unclear exactly what will be part of the bill – something causing stress to renters and landlords alike.

Landlords are clearly unnerved, but it is no surprise considering the amount of lobbying the NRLA has done against it. During a session on the Renters’ Reform Bill, landlords were encouraged to write to their MPs and pressure the government against the legislation. It’s a call to arms for an already influential group of people.

“We need to be lobbying, we need to be writing to our MPs,” said Maxine Fothergill, former president of the Association of Residential Lettings Agents. “I know that the NRLA and I have template letters, and I would suggest every one of you… start writing to your MPs”

They are likely to find a sympathetic ear. In 2021, a quarter of Tory MPs were landlords. In the same year, property tycoons donated over £60m to the Conservatives.

By the end of the conference, it is clear how tricky pushing through essential reform in the private rented sector could be when even the smallest changes cause mass outcry. Yet the stakes are critically high: the housing crisis has only worsened as houses become assets instead of homes.

If the future looks tough for landlords, it may be because the scales are starting to balance.

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