Landlords have evolved, but the rules protecting renters are stuck in the past

The private rented sector has fundamentally changed over the past decade; yet the rules governing how it functions are rooted in the late 1980s.

After the passing of the 1988 Housing Act the size of the private rented sector stayed roughly the same in London. However, since 2001 it has risen by 75 per cent with one in four Londoners now renting privately.

The people living in the sector has also changed, renting is no longer the preserve of the young and economically mobile who previously welcomed its characteristic short-termism. Homeownership is now an increasingly distant dream for Londoners on better incomes, combined with the hollowing out of social housing this has forced those on lower incomes to rely on the private rented sector as well, often with significant subsidy from the state in the form of housing benefit.

The result is that many – if not most – now live in the sector out of necessity, not choice. We see the evidence of this in the emergence of "Generation Rent" and that 20 per cent of the recent growth in privately renting households has been from families with children.

We have one of the weakest sets of rules and regulations of comparable countries to protect private sector tenants. Yet, we also have one of the worst housing crises. The case for reform is clear; the question is not should we reform, but how we should reform the sector.

This week the London Assembly Housing and Regeneration Committee published its report on London’s private rented sector. The report suggests how we mitigate the worst insecurities of the private rented sector – most notably affordability, security of tenure and poor landlord practices. On rents, the committee wants the Mayor to seek regulations so he can pilot a mechanism for bringing stability and predictability to rent increases. While the committee is open to suggestions of how rent increases can be made more predictable, our starting point is the "second generation" regulations of rents – such as those used in Germany and Switzerland – where rent increases are linked to inflation or interest rates.

We are not proposing caps on rents. The proposal has drawn the scorn of City AM editor Alistar Heath, who described the proposal as “stupid”, “economic illiteracy” and “antiquated, quasi-Victorian class hatred of landlords”. Aside from the lazy mudslinging, Heath clearly hasn’t read our proposal, as he seems to think we’re proposing rent caps.

He presents a false choice between New York style rent caps and – what we proposed – second generation rent stabilisation. The evidence from other western economies, most notably Germany and Switzerland, is that such regulations produce much larger, affordable and better functioning private rented sectors than we currently enjoy in London.

As Mr Heath admits in his article London is currently suffering from a dysfunctional housing market. To put it another way, London’s rental sector is experiencing market failure, a point highlighted by Shelter’s report on rip-off letting agent fees. Given the scale of market failure in London’s housing market and the profitability of the sector for landlords, it is unlikely that a mechanism to stabilise rent (not cap rents) would negatively impact on overall supply – it hasn’t in other countries. We need more houses and flats, but we also need rent stabilisation.

Given that the private rented sector is now a permanent destination for many Londoners, particularly families, it is clear that private renters need to feel stable in their home.

That is why the committee has called for the abolition of a landlord’s right to "no fault eviction".

There are a myriad of legal recourses for landlords to evict tenants if they have a genuine reason for doing so. What is not acceptable is a landlord exercising their right to evict a tenant for absolutely no reason. Throughout the committee’s investigation we heard many cases of tenants evicted from properties for asking for repairs or improvements to a property.

Picture the situation; you are a parent of children who have their GCSEs coming up in two months. The boiler has broken and you have asked for it to be repaired. The landlord then exercises his right to "no fault eviction" to get rid of you, knowing full well other tenants will be in the property soon enough. Is it right that our regulations allow this to happen?

Of course, this report is not all about bashing bad landlords. Most landlords are good landlords, who treat their tenants well and invest in their housing stock. That is why the report has encouraged support for landlords – the Assembly is championing low-cost loans and access to reduced cost services – that will make their stock better and make it cheaper for them to operate.

Bringing sense to rent rises will not result in a catastrophic loss of homes – landlords will not just walk away. Hard-pressed tenants are questioning how other western countries can have better regulated sectors than we do, while also having a much larger, more affordable and better functioning private rented sector.

We must do the same in London, this problem isn’t going away and every day we wait more and more Londoners are being poorly treated and having to put up with poor conditions. We’ve had enough talking, now its time for action.

Photograph: Getty Images

Tom Copley is a Labour member of the London Assembly

Getty
Show Hide image

Forget the progressive alliance - it was the voters wot won it in Richmond

The Labour candidate on how voters have acted tactically for decades.

The Richmond Park by-election is both a triumph and a setback for the concept of an anti-Tory progressive alliance. As the Labour candidate, I was bombarded with emails and tweets saying I ought to stand down to prevent Zac Goldsmith being re-elected long after it was technically impossible for me to do so even if I had wanted to. I was harangued at a meeting organised by Compass, at which I found myself the lonely voice defending Labour's decision to put up a candidate.

I was slightly taken aback by the anger of some of those proposing the idea, but I did not stand for office expecting an easy ride. I told the meeting that while I liked the concept of a progressive alliance, I did not think that should mean standing down in favour of a completely unknown and inexperienced Lib Dem candidate, who had been selected without any reference to other parties. 

The Greens, relative newbies to the political scene, had less to lose than Labour, which still wants to be a national political party. Consequently, they told people to support the Lib Dems. This all passed off smoothly for a while, but when Caroline Lucas, the co-leader of the Greens came to Richmond to actively support the Lib Dems, it was more than some of her local party members could stomach. 

They wrote to the Guardian expressing support for my campaign, pointing out that I had a far better, long-established reputation as an environmentalist than the Lib Dem candidate. While clearly that ultimately did little to boost my vote, this episode highlighted one of the key problems about creating a progressive alliance. Keeping the various wings of the Labour party together, especially given the undisciplined approach of the leader who, as a backbencher, voted 428 times during the 13 years of Labour government in the 1990s and 2000s, is hard enough. Then consider trying to unite the left of the Greens with the right of the Lib Dems. That is not to include various others in this rainbow coalition such as nationalists and ultra-left groups. Herding cats seems easy by contrast.

In the end, however, the irony was that the people decided all by themselves. They left Labour in droves to vote out Goldsmith and express their opposition to Brexit. It was very noticeable in the last few days on the doorstep that the Lib Dems' relentless campaign was paying dividends. All credit to them for playing a good hand well. But it will not be easy for them to repeat this trick in other constituencies. 

The Lib Dems, therefore, did not need the progressive alliance. Labour supporters in Richmond have been voting tactically for decades. I lost count of the number of people who said to me that their instincts and values were to support Labour, but "around here it is a wasted vote". The most revealing statistic is that in the mayoral campaign, Sadiq Khan received 24 per cent of first preferences while Caroline Pidgeon, the Lib Dem candidate got just 7 per cent. If one discounts the fact that Khan was higher profile and had some personal support, this does still suggest that Labour’s real support in the area is around 20 per cent, enough to give the party second place in a good year and certainly to get some councillors elected.

There is also a complicating factor in the election process. I campaigned strongly on opposing Brexit and attacked Goldsmith over his support for welfare cuts, the bedroom tax and his outrageous mayoral campaign. By raising those issues, I helped undermine his support. If I had not stood for election, then perhaps a few voters may have kept on supporting him. One of my concerns about the idea of a progressive alliance is that it involves treating voters with disdain. The implication is that they are not clever enough to make up their mind or to understand the restrictions of the first past the post system. They are given less choice and less information, in a way that seems patronising, and smacks of the worst aspects of old-fashioned Fabianism.

Supporters of the progressive alliance will, therefore, have to overcome all these objections - in addition to practical ones such as negotiating the agreement of all the parties - before being able to implement the concept. 

Christian Wolmar is an award winning writer and broadcaster specialising in transport. He was shortlisted as a Labour mayoral candidate in the 2016 London election, and stood as Labour's candidate in the Richmond Park by-election in December 2016.