Why a scheme to curb cowboy landlords is backfiring

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The Independent Online

A plan to squeeze out rogue landlords in Scotland by establishing a register has been welcomed by tenants' groups even though at least a quarter of private landlords have been unable to sign up because of administrative chaos.

The aim of the register of private landlords, introduced under recent anti-social behaviour legislation passed by the Scottish Parliament, is to ensure that owners of rented property are "fit and proper persons", and to enable the authorities to easily identify the owners of properties where illegal activity is suspected.

Criminals convicted of fraud, violence or drug offences can no longer rent out property while social landlords, crofters and monasteries are exempt. Archie Stoddart, director of Shelter Scotland, believes the Landlord Registration Scheme will help deal with cases where landlords allow tenants to use the premises for criminal activities or simply to terrorise the neighbourhood.

"The authorities often found they could not identify landlords when problems of anti-social behaviour occurred," Stoddart says. "There have been some high-profile cases where landlords either refused to act or simply did not care."

The new Housing (Scotland) Act that has just come into force has introduced a number of extra controls on private landlords, such as appeals panels for rented properties, which will provide a low-cost alternative to the courts for disputes over maintenance.

"All properties have to be maintained to a 'repairing' standard, but whereas before all people could do if the landlord refused to do necessary work on the property was go to court, now they will be able to go to a panel that is effectively the old rent-review panel," Stoddart says.

Landlords' organisations generally accept the need for "light touch" controls, however they have been alienated by a chaotic start to the scheme.

First the IT system that was intended to provide a website where landlords could register easily was delayed. When the system finally went operational at the end of April, it became instantly apparent that the number of landlords in Scotland had been grossly underestimated and both the website and the local authorities' paper systems were overwhelmed.

Lack of publicity also meant many landlords were completely unprepared. As a result, at least a quarter, and possibly as much as a half, of all landlords have still not registered.

Most of the big landlords, including property companies and large estates with hundreds of homes, have registered but many small landlords do not hear about the legislation until a tenant leaves and they contact a letting agent to market the property. And with the penalties for failing to register very severe - a £5,000 fine and loss of rent - there has been a lot of anger expressed over the new law.

"For a lot of landlords it is the straw that broke the camel's back," John Blackwood, of the Scottish Association of Landlords, says. "Some landlords are getting out, because they regard it as just another stealth tax. In a couple of years we will be asking how many rogue landlords have they caught, and the answer will be none."

David Alexander. of DJ Alexander, letting agents in Edinburgh and Glasgow, says the wave of new legislation is not deterring buy-to-let landlords but it is causing confusion.

"It's not having much effect at all as it is such a shambles that nobody can register," he says. "The inefficiency of councils means that the majority of people keen to register cannot. The tenants misbehave but they punish the landlord."

Buy-to-let investors in England and Wales are beginning to worry that they will have to register as well.

Chris Town, of the Residential Landlords Association, which covers England and Wales, believes registration is a sledgehammer to crack a nut, and that anti-social behaviour is a matter for co-operation and common sense rather than legislation. "Our view is that anti-social behaviour is something that is difficult for a landlord to do anything about except to give notice to quit and inform the police," he says.

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