Monthly Archives: February 2013

Why Referenda are a BAD IDEA

Marcus Johnson is not keen on too much democracy – either on a national or international scale, or when it comes to the city centre.

It may not seem like an obvious question to pose but just occasionally the actions of our political leaders do lead me to ask exactly who won the civil war. Was it parliament – who had the organisation and the strong views, or was it the King who had popular support, emotion and divine right on his side. Conventionally we pretend that Parliament won and that representative democracy is the result. Those who did not believe we had gone far enough had round two in 1776 and split the nation into a Republic on one side of the Atlantic and a Kingdom on the other – but both maintained the principle of representative government.

It was this principle that the civil war (and indeed the American Revolution) were fought on. Sometimes expressed as ‘no taxation without representation’ and interpreted in slightly different ways on each side of the Atlantic, but for nearly 400 years the intellectual case for representative government has been unchallenged. Perhaps it is the long period of democracy which makes us so careless today but we should make no mistake – referenda are the antithesis of representative government and they threaten the foundations of our society.

The reason they do so is that there is a profound difference between majoritarianism, where the view of the majority is imposed on the minority, and representative democracy, where we select from amongst us individuals to sit in parliament (or Congress) to deliberate on matters of state and decide, in the full knowledge of the background and possible consequences (we hope), what the best course of action is. Not the most popular, not even that which was in their manifesto, but that which seems right at the time. As Churchill pointed out, this is a terrible way of governing ourselves – but every other way tried by mankind is worse.

In particular referenda are the weapons of choice for demagogues, despots and dictators. There are several ways in which this can be illustrated, but the underlying reasons are that if you choose the question carefully and select the right electorate at the right time you can probably get the result you want. Perhaps the best practitioner of the loaded question in recent times was Charles de Gaulle who used referenda to impose his vision of effective government on France. Wonderfully successfully – partly because if the French got the answer wrong he would first ask them again, pointing out that he was all that stood between them and chaos (“après moi, le deluge”).  You could argue that in one sense De Gaulle was actually the embodiment of representative democracy – it was just he was the sole representative. But the same power was used by Hitler to take total control, and even occasionally by Stalin to give a veneer of democracy to his totalitarian regime.

The reason majoritarianism, or rule by popular prejudice, is always dangerous is perhaps best summed up in Dietrich Bonhoeffer‘s words “then they came for me and there was no one left to speak for me.”  We are all minorities and a demagogue can always find a majority who will oppress a minority. All too often with a referendum he can define the terms and conditions so that a minority decides the fate of the majority.

A small minority of Scots are likely to decide on Scotland’s independence – as they did on devolution in both Wales and Scotland. It is perhaps worth noting that part of De Gaulle’s legacy is that half a million French in London get to vote – but not a single one of the millions of Scots outside Scotland will be given a voice. But the reason that the referendum is so useful as a tool for dictators  is that not only is the electorate probably fixed but the question can be altered to give a positive message and deliver the desired result. The Scottish referendum will ask “do you agree that Scotland should be an independent country? “. This has been carefully chosen to contain a positive message. Independence is a positive word and no-one has ever proposed that Scotland should not be a separate country with its own legal and religious establishment under its own (but shared with several other counties) monarch. If the question were “Do you agree we should break up the United Kingdom, stop having British passports  and replace the Queen by Gordon Brown or another old politician? “ the message would be rather less positive even though the net effect is identical.

Even in Cambridge you can see the corrosive effects of referenda at work – millions of pounds is being taken from city businesses as a result of a recent local referendum. Look at just how outrageous this result is: 33% of those eligible voted – of these 60% were in favour – so about one in five ‘businesses’ impose their will on the rest. If you look at prominent supporters you will find the majority will not even pay full rates or are taxpayer supported. If we assume that these again were 60% of those who voted in favour and on average they pay 50% of full rates then less than 10% of those who will pay for nearly £1m of administrators to organise others spending £2m to improve the city centre over the next 5 years in order to increase our pride and make us more welcoming as a City. A small minority were able to impose their will ‘democratically’ on those who will pay 90% of the cost. Such is the power of referenda!

It is perhaps divisive to point out that for most of this country’s history you would have found a majority in favour of witches being killed in horrific ways (as our transatlantic cousins were prone to do particularly in areas where “town meetings” had real power ). We would still have hanging, immigrants and other minorities of all kinds might have been persecuted and, of course, we would have banned imports from abroad. It is this last prejudice in favour of protectionism which will be exploited if we have a plebiscite on European Union, probably to the detriment of all of us and our fellow Europeans.

It is clear that Monet and Adenaur were doing ridiculously unpopular things when immediately after the second world war they started to try to reconcile the French and German peoples who had been at the middle of three cataclysmic wars within living memory. The popular vote will always be in favour of war; jingoism and nationalist fervour are easy to stoke up, difficult to quell. But the beauty of representative government is that by and large our representatives have managed to look beyond tomorrow when making decisions whether to remove restrictions on homosexuality or reducing tariffs on imports. Whilst most of us are quite cynical, and with reason, as to the judgement and motives of many of our political leaders we should all reflect long and hard before we put decision making directly in the hands of a population which has at best no competence or experience on most questions of economics or international relations and at worst is prone to wild emotional swings and subject to irrational prejudices which if allowed full rein would impoverish us all and lead us backwards to the instabilities of the last century. The only referendum we should favour is one to ban referenda forever from our country. 


Finding the Perfect Tenant – “Trust but Verify”

Finding that perfect tenant can be time consuming and a very tough task.   No matter how a prospective tenant may dress or whether they come across very genuine and trustworthy, there is no guarantee that what you see is what you get.

Recent research undertaken by the NLA (National Landlord Association) found that over 50% of landlords have experienced rent arrears in the last 12 months.  Whilst there can be a variety of reasons why a tenant may have problems paying the rent, there are other factors that make a bad tenant such as landlords having their property damaged and anti-social behaviour etc.

Too many landlords are failing to make simple checks on tenants before handing over the keys to their rental properties.  As a family business with a large portfolio of properties, we mainly target the DSS market and below are a few quick steps on finding a good tenant:

Where do you advertise your property?

It is worth placing an advertisement in the local press as a local advert is likely to attract those in the vicinity rather than further afield.

Go and visit the tenant at their property!

As landlords we always try to visit the prospective tenant at their current address, that way you can always get a picture of the state of their current property.  When you initially speak with the tenant mention you want to meet with them at their current address and if they say no, or rush you off the phone, you can tell something could be wrong.  What are they hiding? Visiting the tenant at their existing address can be the best reference you get.

Always think cautiously!

When tenants are in a hurry to move in or offer rent up front to secure the property without allowing time for the correct background checks to take place, it’s important to exercise caution. Approximately one in 20 tenants processed has one or more CCJ’s at an undisclosed address.

If your prospective tenant is stalling…

Most tenants are happy to co-operate if they have nothing to hide, holding up the process of moving into their rental property is unusual if everything is above board.

Some tenants do not appreciate being checked!

A recent case uncovered that the employment details of a prospective tenant were false.  This tenant could have potentially slipped through the net because the referenced contact name was an employee of the company concerned doing a friend a favour.  The application might have been successful if it were not for the fact that the prospective tenant couldn’t provide back statements showing salary payments.

Also as landlords we’ve heard the tenant say “I have been living out of the Country for 2 years” or “I have been living with parents” when in fact they may have left their previous property unannounced, in a mess and not paid the last months rent or indeed many previous months for that matter.

One company that combats this is The UK’s first tenant rated website that will give you address history of the tenant, contract dates, a rating from the previous landlord and their contact details should you wish to get a reference direct.

You could quite easily end up in a situation of not knowing who your tenant actually is!

Trust your instincts!

You may not want to be best friends, but still, any friction you feel up front could be an indication of things to come later down the line.

We suggest you do all credit checks you need but, as stated earlier, meeting the tenant in their current environment (if you can) is one of the most important checks and it’s is free of charge of course!

Furthermore ask for a home owning guarantor, it can be better than any amount of deposit you take or insurance you will ever buy.

Tracking a tenant’s exact history!

As mentioned above Tenants History Ltd ( was set up 18 months ago and is a totally NO COST service to help landlords and letting agents identify troublesome tenants, whilst highlighting the good.

This unique “Rate a Tenant” website is being run from their London office by Mr Steven Hanbury, as an additional branch to his family’s buy-to-let business, S&S Hanbury Properties Ltd.  Mr Hanbury said his involvement in the rental business was behind the idea of offering a service that benefits landlords, letting agents and tenants.

Mr Hanbury added “Letting agents and landlords joining the scheme will simply be able to upload their tenants onto the Tenants History website and then “rate” the tenant when they have left the property. This in turn creates a footprint enabling landlords and letting agents the opportunity to view a tenants current and previous address history, dates of tenancies and a “rating” from previous landlords/agents.  Also you can have access to contact the current or previous landlord/agent, should you wish to get a reference direct.  Also our service doesn’t cost a penny, what have you got to lose?

It is useful to bear in mind that the history of a tenant creates more security for a landlord/agent when the tenant knows that their behaviour will be recorded and circulated.

Tenants History fully complies with the Data Protection Act 1998 and the I.C.O (Information Commissioners Office).

Please see our Terms and Conditions for more information on Data Protection.

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Article by Steven Hanbury, Director of Tenants History Ltd.