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Packed ExCel for interactive and dramatic ARLA Conference 2017

Wednesday 29 March 2017

ARLA Conference at ExCel, London was a theatrical show this year, featuring an array of passionately fought debates, and even a court room trial about Right to Rent complete with expert witnesses and a court-room backdrop. And the drama didn't end there...more on that later.

It was our first conference since being rebranded as ARLA Propertymark, and levels of enthusiasm for the new brand seemed high and not just in the main arena. Teams of delegates waited to have their photos taken against the backdrop of the new, modern, visually appealing ARLA Propertymark stand in the exhibition space - something which was rarely seen under the old ARLA brand.

Elsewhere is the exhibition space there was a wide variety of service providers with their latest offerings and everything from Augmented Reality to one exhibitor who was tempting in the punters with freshly made smoothies.

In the main hall, before getting into full swing Julian Worricker asked the audience to stand for a minute's silence to pay respect to the four people that died as a result of the recent attack at Westminster bridge.

BE NIK'S FRIEND

Nik Madan put the sell-out record crowd down to the fact that we have reached a critical juncture in history for lettings agents. He said that despite promises when the current government came to power that they would cut red tape and costs to businesses, our industry is 'under siege' and under attack from what he called a "Tsunami of legislation", citing selective licensing, the tenant fee ban, and changes to stamp duty, mortgage interest relief and wear and tear allowances as recent examples of this.

He said that at a time when agents are having to do more for less, ARLA Propertymark membership is more important than ever to their survival and success. Training, qualifications, industry leading information and lobbying has never been more critical. 

ARLA Conference 2017

He said that we must be proactive and be a body that works for everyone in the industry - online, hybrid, corporates, independent and build to rent sector - for government to take notice.

Nik highlighted Primary Authority for assured advice as a major benefit, endorsed learning programmes, a new developer class membership option for institutional investors in the build to rent sector and that we now had online and hybrid members.

He ended his speech with a fanfare to Propertymark, explaining to the audience that the new brand was more than a name change. It had come about as a result of extensive research and heralded a new direction, positioning us as consumer champions with a simple message to consumers - use an ARLA Propertymark agent and you and your money are protected. Nik is keen for members to get in touch with him to give feedback and suggestions and gave out his email address and telephone number, quipping that he loves hearing from members "mainly because he has no friends".

ONE NATION FOUR COUNTRIES

ARLA Conference 2017 David Cox

In his address to the audience, ARLA Chief Executive David Cox was keen to stress how the sector's biggest challenges are the pace of change within the sector, and the diverging legal frameworks that devolution brings. He said it's very much a case of one nation, four countries and it's becoming increasingly difficult to navigate the minefield of ever-changing law.

He described a growing disparity between agent regulation in devolved nations, citing Rent Smart Wales as being a fiasco, RTR checks as being difficult to understand and said that Westminster refuse to look at the bigger picture, instead choosing to focus on individual issues such as a ban on letting agent fees. Scotland were the exception and he praised the Scottish Government for effectively placing ARLA Propertymark's membership criteria on the statute books.

He also accused the Government of singling out the lettings industry. Due to all of the recent legislative and tax changes, for landlords to maintain the same yields rents would need to rise by approximately 18%.

A FORCE TO BE RECKONED WITH

With all the negativity about lettings industry over the past year, most of it coming from the direction of the Government, it's easy to think that it's all doom and gloom in the world of lettings. However, David was keen to express to the audience how ARLA Propertymark membership had reached it's highest level ever, hitting well over 9,000 and how this brought benefits to all of our members.

He said: "The more members we have, the greater percentage of the industry we represent, and the more government have to listen to us." And this wasn't hyperbole - although it may take time to drive home our key messages to the Government, we are starting to see the fruits of our labour. 

ARLA Conference 2017 debate

Our influence on Government could clearly be seen in areas such as enforcement, Client Money Protection and in Scotland which will see new regulation coming into force in 2018. He said he was hopeful that the access tenancy deposit data, £30,000 fixed penalty notices and rent repayment orders will enable targeted enforcement and should mean that fewer councils feel the need to resort to overly bureaucratic licensing schemes.

Later on in the day, it was announced that ARLA Propertymark's long running campaign to make Client Money Protection (CMP) mandatory for all letting agents had been successful and that a consultation on the proposed new measures will be released shortly.

LIFE AFTER TENANT FEES

It was never in doubt that ARLA members would resolutely stand their ground in the 'don't ban tenant fees' camp, but you've got to give our guests on the panel credit and kudos for facing such a hostile room, packed to the rafters with letting agents with a bee in their bonnets. Ross Jezzard passionately fought his corner on behalf of agents, backed by ARLA Chief Executive David Cox who gave a more considered position from the perspective of the organisation. Heckles from the audience were directed at Baroness Hayter and Claer Barrett from the FT who were there to represent the tenant’s perspective on the 'pro ban' side. It all made for a heated and at times tense debate which kept the audience on the edge of their seats.

PESTON'S AGE OF UNCERTAINTY

ARLA Conference 2017 Peston

ITV political editor Robert Peston, gave an in-depth look at economics and politics in his own inimitable style, saying that people were behaving in ways we weren't supposed to behave, making economic predictions harder than ever before.

He touched on a theme that had been covered in previous ARLA conferences that robots are replacing jobs, but that lettings agents and others in people and service related businesses will be safer than most. When later questioned by an audience member who asked - "Would you become a letting agent?" Peston re-iterated that lettings agents should be relatively safe in a long-term sense, and that it's "difficult to see how robots can do what you do...as so much of what you do is about personal relationships and personal knowledge of individual markets...the more you concentrate on the service element of the job, the safer you will be."

Peston predicted that the UK bank rate will double within a year to 0.5% and said that if Trump introduces a border tax, many companies could end up moving to America to avoid the tax. The only way for other economic areas such as the EU to get around this would be to do the same. This could be a big problem for a small independent economy outside of the single market such as the UK. 

Robert Peston addressed industry specific areas of concern, turning to tenant fees; he said that the Government are drawing breath and will introduce measures but whether it ends up as an outright ban is still an open question. He believes that the government will listen to the sector and no decisions will be rushed through because the Government have so much on their plate because of Brexit.

A FORMER FOREIGN SECRETARY’S WORLD VIEW

William Hague set the tone for his surprisingly humorous speech by saying if you'd put £5000 on Britain leaving the EU, Trump being elected and Leicester City winning the league you would have won more than £12 million.

Hague explained how the Brexit negotiations are not like leaving a house and slamming the door, but to staying in the house and deciding how to divide it up.

Lord Hague talked about the Scottish Government’s demands for a second referendum being a major distraction during Brexit negotiations. "We will look pretty silly as a country if we leave the EU to get our national sovereignty back and then our own country disintegrates beneath us".

ARLA Conference 2017 Hague

He said that the Scottish nationalists have decided that their best bet for winning independence is to have another referendum in Scotland at the point of maximum confusion. However, he was of the opinion that, the EU will not negotiate separately with part of a nation state. Independence for Scotland would therefore mean leaving the EU and the UK which would be brave - "but they are brave of course…”

ARLA Conference 2017 Court

PUTTING RIGHT TO RENT ON TRIAL

In one of the most popular sessions of the day, ARLA Conference delegates saw a fictitious trial of an agent facing charges under Section 33b of the Immigration Act 2014. The agent played by ARLA Propertymark Policy & Campaigns Officer Tim Douglas, was defending himself against a possible sentence of up to five years in prison.

The prosecution, played by Robert Bolwell alleged that Mr Douglas knew or had reasonable cause to believe that his landlord would be in contravention of the Right to Rent legislation when setting up a tenancy agreement for him.

Complete with court room mock-up stage set and expert witnesses, the scene that played out brought home just how complicated the area of Right to Rent checks can be, and why agents feel like they are effectively doing the job of immigration officers.

Complications arose because the tenant, Mr Jones, stated that he would be sharing the property with his wife, a Greek national who he had married a month before. After calling expert witness Gareth Fowler from Keysafe Tenant Vetting it transpired that the passport, which was only seen after the tenancy agreement had been signed, was a forgery, and the wife had no right to reside in the UK. The fact that the tenant had shown Mr Douglas a copy of their marriage certificate before the tenancy was signed was immaterial as it was not presented with additional supporting documentation on the list of accepted documents.

At the end of the trial, the audience were asked to cast their votes via Sli.do in something akin to a mix of x-factor and a real-life jury. The votes were displayed live in a real-time progress bar and it's fair to say that the results surprised many in the room. The defendant is guilty - take him down!