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ARLA Propertymark conference 2017: Over 1,000 delegates (but no housing minister)

Anyone doubting the popularity of professional/trade bodies with their members would have done well to visit the ARLA Propertymark conference at ExCeL yesterday.

Over 1,000 delegates and a substantial number of exhibitors attended the sell-out event and were rewarded with a high quality programme of top notch speakers who informed and stimulated the audience with their presentations.

And for once, thankfully, there was not a motivational speaker in sight… nor, however, was the housing minister.

The day did confirm that Client Money Protection insurance is likely to be a mandatory requirement, while delegates were left in little doubt that the ban on letting agent fees will go ahead. By the middle of the afternoon, ARLA Propertymark chief executive David Cox was able to announce that, in response to a question in the Lords from Baroness Hayter, the Government said it had accepted the case for compulsory CMP.

Julian Worricker was the super-safe pair of hands in charge of proceedings and he smoothly introduced ARLA Propertymark president Nik Maden who made a swift impression by stating that the letting industry is ‘under attack from a tsunami of regulation’.

David Cox echoed Nik’s assessment, saying that the sector is being ‘demonised’. Noting that one third of MPs are landlords, David spoke with passion about the proposed banning of tenant fees and threw down the gauntlet to government by saying that to try and head off the ban ‘we are going to put up one hell of a fight’.

Given the changes coming to lettings by way of legislation it was appropriate that the first keynote speaker of the day, ITV’s political editor, Robert Peston, should entitle his presentation ‘Age of Uncertainty’. His hugely informative and insightful views engaged the audience and produced some thought-provoking facts.

Much of what is happening in the world of politics and economics around the world is because large sections of the populations are not behaving as they are expected to behave – witness the election of Trump and the vote to leave the EU. It is, in Peston’s words, ‘The Revolution of the Blonds’ – Trump, Boris Johnson, and Marine Le Pen.

Throwing in the extraordinary fact that among poor white men in America the mortality rate is rising (and this in a supposed rich, first world country) Peston went on to his key point, that Brexit is unprecedented in its complexity – mind-boggling, he says – and it will be a mammoth task for government to deliver it.

In his view, the EU is likely to unravel in the next decade and the best result Theresa May can hope for in the forthcoming French elections is for the far-right Le Pen to win, as if she does the EU will start to come apart more quickly and it will take the spotlight off Brexit.

In the Q&A that followed, Peston was asked if he would ever consider an alternative career as a letting agent. He responded that what lettings does as an industry is probably safe when viewed against the ‘rise of the robots’ because industries based on face to face service are likely to survive changes in technology. He didn’t actually say he would want to be an agent…

He concluded by surmising that government might actually be ‘drawing breath’ over the proposed ban on tenant fees. Whether he would have maintained that view later in the day we shall not know.

Sam Mitchell from Rightmove manfully filled the slot left by a missing housing minister and gave a very interesting and even-handed assessment of the state of the letting market – noting that since 2013 and the ban on tenant fees in Scotland, rents have increased more than in the rest of the UK. He foresees a slight reduction in demand in the coming months, increased supply, and a longer period to find a tenant. Nothing dramatic, but certainly not significant growth in the sector.

Absent housing minister Gavin Barwell popped up in a video message to conference that said nice things about ARLA, and promised a proper consultation on the proposal to ban letting fees. Somewhat unsurprisingly there was no applause at the end the video.

Then came a panel debate entitled ‘Life after Letting Fees’ – which your correspondent took to mean that it’s probably a done deal whatever government and civil servants might say about proper consultations.

Suffice to say that this panel debate became a seriously heated exchange between panel members and the audience. In one camp those who favour the ban as bringing transparency; in the other those who see no justification for it. Baroness Hayter – so vocally a proponent of compulsory Client Money Protection and therefore a Good Thing in the eyes of most delegates, became rather a Bad Thing when she expressed the view that the tenant fee ban is highly desirable.

Her responses to the suggestion that tenants would actually be disadvantaged by the ban drew the loudest heckling of the day and one strident voice shouted ‘You are naïve’ – which brought a huge round of applause.

At times proceedings had a pantomime quality about them as, in response to the proposition that tenants do not know what they are going to pay at the start of a tenancy, one side started yelling ‘They do!’ whilst the other side yelled, ‘They don’t!’. All very amusing, if it wasn’t so potentially serious.

David Cox gave a well reasoned counter to the Baroness and other proponents of a ban and maintained a dignified and professional, but firm, stance despite some quite severe provocations from those who want to see the end of tenant fees.

Lunch came as something of a respite after all the fireworks and your correspondent was honoured to be admitted to the VIP eatery rather than having to slum it with the hoi polloi. The reward was a splendidly tasty cheese pasta with capers and a sharply dressed salad, followed by a creamy choc pot mousse topped with an oversize milk choccy button. Nourishing and satisfying in equal measure. To top it all I ran into Willy Wonka (in the form of James Neal) who, in possession of a Golden Ticket, guided me to the Dutton Gregory stand where he generously exchanged said ticket for a chocolate Easter Bunny that made its way into my goodie bag.

Back in the conference hall William Hague (now Lord Hague of Richmond) took to the stage to give his view of the world. It was all delivered at some pace and with a degree of humour and personal insights. His view on the potential independence of Scotland? “Just because they are crazy does not mean they won’t do it.”

He also noted that migration was a key factor in the Brexit vote and that Boris Johnson may well have been the single most influential person in the outcome of it.

There followed a staged court scene in which Julian Worriker took the part of the judge whilst Dutton Gregory’s Robert Bulwell ‘prosecuted’ a hapless Tim Douglas (ARLA’s policy and campaigns officer) in a mock trial where Douglas was accused of breaking the rules on Right to Rent checks.

It was an entertaining insight into just how staggeringly complicated the law is in this regard and how serious could be the consequences of making an error – five years in jail, for example. After expert witness evidence from Gareth Fowler of Keysafe and David Smith of Anthony Gold, the audience played the part of the jury and much to the surprise of Judge Rinder, sorry, Worriker, they found the defendant guilty by 74% to 26%. Tim was last seen heading for the cells. Or it could have been the bar.

David Cox rounded off the day and gave notice that the event will be back at ExCeL in 2018. Given that they sold every ticket to this year’s conference, they may need a bigger venue yet!

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