On Monday March 18th BBC’s Panorama programme focussed on Fergus and Judith Wilson. They have been called Britain’s worst landlords, though there is plenty of competition for the title.
At their peak the pair boasted an empire of 1,000 homes in Kent and were reckoned to be worth £250 millions.
They imposed their own rules. In the past they have refused to take people on zero-hours contracts, single parents, and those on benefits.
In January 2014 Fergus Wilson sent eviction notices to every tenant receiving housing benefit and told letting agents that he would no longer accept tenants who need housing benefit. This amounted to at least 200 evictions. Wilson told Panorama, "Not everyone on housing benefit is a problem, but every problem is on housing benefit."
Wilson insists the landlord is in charge. "Basically, we have got two types of tenants - those who agree with me and ex-tenants." Isn’t it lovely to have that power over fellow human beings! He certainly has the power tto make their lives a misery.
In 2017 Wilson was taken to court by the Equalities and Human Rights Commission after he told a letting agent: "No coloured people because of the curry smell at the end of the tenancy." In court he claimed, “It was banter.”
Panorama unearthed evidence of ‘revenge evictions’. As soon as a tenant made a complaint, they received notice to quit.
Now the pair say they are retiring. This is their excuse for mass evictions. It’s very easy. A landlord can evict a tenant for no reason with just two months' notice. It's called a no-fault, or section 21, eviction.
Wilson is unapologetic about his use of evictions. "I can do what I like. You don't want me to lie about it, do you?” he told the programme"
Shelter chief executive Polly Neate said: "Fergus is an extreme example, but he is a really good illustration of how easy it is to prevent people in private renting from being able to put down roots...The insecurity this creates - particularly for children - it's incredibly damaging."
Fergus Wilson insists, "The landlord rules, not the tenant. But I think you've worked that out, haven't you?" Now he’s had the brass neck to complain to the BBC about what an unsavoury character he’s shown himself to be.
What this case really shows is, not that there are rogue landlords like the Wilsons, but that the whole system is skewed so as to let them get away with it. In the first place tenants don’t have any security of tenure. They are at the mercy of the whim of their landlord, who can get rid of them at any time.
Secondly people are forced into the grip of greedy people like the Wilsons because of the lack of social housing. So many people, who cannot possibly afford to buy at today’s surreal house prices, have to let from private landlords. As we have seen this can be extremely profitable for landlords like the Wilsons.
The killer blow for social housing was when Margaret Thatcher ion 1979 inaugurated the sale of council houses at a big discount. As a result many council homes (such as the one where I was brought up in) ended up on the open market and are now buy-to-lets, making money for the likes of the Wilsons. The social resource of a council house has disappeared forever. The ‘right to buy’ must go if we are to rebuild our stock of social housing.
We need reform of landlord and tenant law to protect tenants from the rapacious demands of the landlords. But we desperately need a programme of mass building of social housing. Capitalism cannot provide housing for all at a price they can afford. That is a simple fact.
Jeremy Corbyn commented: “We'll be on the side of tenants and people without a home to call their own, not rogue landlords.” Tenants of landlords like the Wilsons must long for the day when Labour is in charge.