Guardian: Spirit of Rachman still walks the streets of London

Tony Gosling tony at
Sun Oct 31 16:13:26 GMT 2010

Spirit of Rachman still walks the streets of London

Britain's housing boom has provided lots of 
opportunities for unscrupulous landlords

Anushka Asthana, policy editor
The Observer, Sunday 31 October 2010

Ever since Peter Rachman gained notoriety for his 
exploitation and intimidation of tenants in 
London's Notting Hill in the 1950s and early 
1960s, Britain has been familiar with the 
phenomenon of the rapacious private landlord. 
"Rachmanism" later entered the Oxford English 
Dictionary, defining "extortion or exploitation 
by a landlord of tenants of dilapidated or slum property".

Britain's 30-year housing boom, combined with a 
scarcity of affordable housing, has provided 
plenty of opportunities for unscrupulous 
landlords 40 years on. The charity Shelter has 
revealed examples of a minority of "rogue 
landlords" in 2010 who make their tenants' lives 
miserable with harassment, illegal eviction, 
unfit properties and withheld deposits.

But it is mainstream, law-abiding landlords whose 
rents have risen so much that the housing benefit 
bill has inflated to a colossal £21bn. The 
coalition government's hope is that a series of 
measures to limit the levels of housing benefit 
available to recipients will mean that they have 
to charge less. Whether they will remains to be 
seen. The fate of thousands of families depends 
on the government guessing right.

It is the long, steep rise in house prices that 
led to such a radical gamble by this coalition 
government – one that critics have warned could 
drive people out of wealthy inner-cities.

Margaret Thatcher's Housing Act, passed in 1980, 
gave council tenants the right to buy their 
homes. By 1982, 400,000 families had exercised 
that right. By 2003, the number was 1.5m. As the 
stock of affordable, rented accommodation shrank, 
a property boom took hold, and rents kept pace with rocketing house prices.

Meanwhile not enough new affordable homes were 
being built. Many would agree that former Labour 
and Conservative governments have to share the 
blame. As senior Labour figures now admit, the 
Blair and Brown governments did little to ease 
the problem of out-of control property prices, 
high rents and a housing shortage. The 
housebuilding programmes that were undertaken were too little too late.

In the latter stages of Labour's 13 years in 
power, the buy-to-let phenomenon drove up 
property prices still further. Those who could 
not afford to climb on the property ladder were 
obliged to pay some of the highest rents in 
Europe. Or, in the case of the unemployed and 
low-paid, councils were obliged to pay those rents for them.

As Campbell Robb, chief executive of the charity 
Shelter, puts it: "There is not enough affordable 
housing because of decades of under-investment in housebuilding."

Five decades after Rachman, housing is still an 
emotive issue – one that could make or break this government.
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