This article appears as part of the Unspun: Scottish Politics newsletter.

Adam Smith, often referred to as ‘The Father of Capitalism’, and Karl Marx may have found cause to differ on a number of things but on one they were firmly in agreement: landlords.

The Scotsman described them in The Wealth of Nations as “the only one of the three orders whose revenue costs them neither labour nor care, but comes to them, as it were, of its own accord, and independent of any plan or project of their own” and that their right “has its origin in robbery”. The beardy German fella concluded that rent could, by definition, come only from surplus labour value – that’s a roundabout way of saying exploitation – given that the landlord has himself done no work to obtain capital from the land or property he owns.

Winston Churchill described the landlord as someone who “renders no service to the community, he contributes nothing to the general welfare, he contributes nothing to the process from which his own enrichment is derived”. The Dead Kennedys famously had some less intellectually abstract thoughts about landlords.

These examples culled from across the political spectrum will probably be pertinent to bear in mind when the inevitable furore comes in response to the Scottish Government’s new housing bill.

Published on Wednesday, the Housing (Scotland) Bill will behove local councils to carry out assessments of the private rental sector in their area, reporting back to ministers who could potentially create areas of rent control to cap costs for tenants.

The bill includes rights for tenants to have pets and redecorate, as well as rent controls between tenancies and the right for joint tenants to leave.

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It would further require a first-tier tribunal and sheriff court to take timing into account when considering any notice to evict, to “reduce, as far as possible, the negative impact of eviction at a time of greater stress resulting from additional pressures or individual circumstances”.

The need for reform in Scotland’s housing sector is clear. In recent months four local councils – Glasgow, Edinburgh, Argyll & Bute and Fife – have declared housing emergencies while figures this week revealed that the number of new homes built by housing associations has fallen to its lowest level since 1988.

Cuts to university and college budgets have led to such institutions recruiting more fee-paying students from overseas, pushing up demand for rental properties and, in turn, rents for everyone in the private sector.

The Scottish Government’s solution has not been without its critics. Labour described the proposals as “half-baked”, stating that it wouldn’t do enough to tackle homelessness and is slow to help renters, as well as doing nothing to encourage the construction of affordable accommodation.

It has, however, been largely welcomed by organisations such as homelessness charity Crisis and tenants’ union Living Rent. The former said it had the potential to be a “world-leading” example on homelessness on possible resource while the latter described it as “a huge step forward” while warning “the landlord lobby will try to water the bill down at every step”.

The Herald: Mr. Timothy Rack Rent, an Old Miserable Landlord, & His Neighbour Lease-hold, a Country Attorney – 18th century engravingMr. Timothy Rack Rent, an Old Miserable Landlord, & His Neighbour Lease-hold, a Country Attorney – 18th century engraving (Image: Newsquest)
Given they don’t have any real jobs to worry about, said lobby was not far behind. The Scottish Association of Landlords, in a striking example of threatening the populace with a good time, warned it could lead to “more landlords leaving the sector”. To be fair, the implication here is presumably that bigger landlords will attain a monopoly position in the event that those owning a single property feel forced to sell, thus allowing for a further hike in rents.

Yet Scottish Government data on properties held by registered landlords shows that landlords holding a single property fell from 94% of active registrations to 72% between 2019 and 2023, with those holding three or more rising from 1% to 12%.

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Average advertised rents – i.e those not subject to a previous Covid-inspired rent cap bill – for two bedroom properties rose 14.3% between 2022 and 2023, well above the average 12 month UK CPI inflation rate of 9%. In short, tenants are already being gouged and it’s hard to see how a bill which includes the ability to cap increases at 0% could possibly exacerbate that situation, as the landlords would have us believe.

Scotland’s housing crisis goes beyond what the bill will cover, of that there’s no doubt. But you won’t find many crying over the fate of the landlords.