Gove’s government

Nigel Lewis reports from the NRLA conference, where the Housing Secretary, Michael Gove bravely faced an auditorium full of landlords – via Zoom.

Micheal Gove - NRLA conference - image

And there the Minister was, looming large on a huge screen overlooking a hot chandeliered ballroom in a quiet corner of Birmingham Airport. ‘The Minister’ was Michael Gove, Secretary of State for Levelling Up and of course housing too, peering out bemused over delegates like an all-seeing Orwellian Big Brother.

The 1,000-odd people in the hall had bristled with anticipation before his virtual arrival while NRLA boss Ben Beadle sweated quietly on the podium, having clearly been less than certain Gove would log on.

I gather that it was a close-run thing – Rishi’s Cabinet meeting had overrun that morning and a meeting with Jewish leaders had taken its toll on his diary too – unsurprising given the horrors in Israel and Gaza unfolding at the moment.

Renters red tape

But now Gove had something more mundane to discuss – the belief that his nearing and much-debated Renters (Reform) Act, which will make life more difficult for both landlords and letting agents once it gets Royal Assent sometime next year, was a good thing.

Overall, most of the delegates didn’t seem too bothered by the extra red tape they would face. This includes national registration in England via the Property Portal; signing up to and paying for a redress scheme to deal with tenant complaints (something agents already have to, of course) and at some point (following a delay announced by Gove earlier that week) the abolition of Section 21 no-fault evictions.

This will make evicting bad tenants more difficult and expensive.

This will make evicting bad tenants more difficult and expensive going forward, whatever Gove says.

What really got the audience going, which is something the Housing Secretary didn’t mention until prompted by Beadle from the podium, was the issue of taxation. It’s clear most landlords are still hopping mad about George Osborne’s 2015 decision to phase out allowing landlords to claim their mortgage interest payments against personal tax, and the only time Gove got heckled was when he tried to defend it.

His was a familiar but odd argument – that it’s unfair to give landlords tax incentives when home buyers and in particular first-time buyers don’t get tax breaks.

And yet they already get help; many first-time buyers have purchased their homes through Help to Buy, which by any yardstick is a Government subsidy, and a significant proportion of home buyers don’t pay stamp duty at all on their property purchases, while landlords have to pay an additional 3%.

Shouty landlords

But despite the shouty landlords in the audience, Gove overall proved his prowess as a politician; unlike Sunak he has the common touch and can be self-deprecating when necessary but unlike piffle-paffle Boris, he talks well-argued sense on most subjects.

It’s easy to see why some people at the conference thought he might become the next Tory leader, assuming the party’s likely decimation at the next General Election. Remember Labour remains 20 points ahead in the polls.

But as one industry leader pointed out to me after Gove’s speech, he’s also good at talking the talk in front of audiences and editing his politics to suit them, as all politicians do.

Whether his mood music about giving landlords tax breaks and his soothing talk about the Renters (Reform) Bill being a bulwark against bad landlords and not something good landlords and letting agents need worry about, is true or not remains to be seen.

Just £10 extra

Recent research by his department claimed the legislation will cost landlords or letting agents just £10 a year more in additional administration, something most within the property industry consider to be more wishful thinking given that the extra cost of all evictions going to court will be considerable for many property managers.

And so Gove wished the conference farewell and, one assumes, some young parliamentary private secretary gopher hit the Leave button on his laptop.

“Well, that was fun, wasn’t it,” said Beadle, still grasping the podium. I guess it was, if the fine detail of crafting private rented sector legislation is your bag.

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