More people than ever before are renting privately. The Government needs to take notice

Housing policy has been slow to respond to the dramatic growth in private renting. That has to change.

"Generation Rent" seems to be increasingly difficult to ignore. Before the global financial crisis we used to have Phil and Kirsty from Location, Location, Location looking for the perfect house in the perfect place. Now we have Cherry Healey’s Property Virgins looking to find anything they can afford. The recent growth of the private rented sector seems to have reached the national consciousness. Recently, the communities and local government select committee has published a major new report looking at how we can respond to this trend.

The growth of private renting in England is not a recent phenomenon. After seventy years of decline private renting began to stabilise in the 1980s and grew slowly during the 1990s. Then from around 2001 onwards it began to grow rapidly, almost doubling in size in a decade. Private renting now accounts for 17 per cent of households and has just overtaken social housing.

Figure 1: Households in the private rented sector, England, 1990 to 2011/12

Pattison fig 1

Source: Department for Communities and Local Government (2013) English Housing Survey: Headline Report

Housing policy has been slow to respond to this major change. The previous Labour government commissioned the Rugg and Rhodes review of private renting but never implemented the substantive recommendations. Since coming to power, the coalition government has been positive about the growth of private renting. Recently, the housing minister stated that “we want a bigger and better private rented sector”. The government has expressed its satisfaction with the regulatory framework for private renting. Instead, they are seeking to improve quality by committing £1 billion in guarantees to encourage investment in the sector from institutions such as pension funds. In contrast, the government is committing just £3 million to tackling ‘rogue landlords’.

The devolved administrations in Scotland and Wales are using their powers to take a much more active approach to managing private renting. A new strategy for the private rented sector in Scotland was launched in May and it included plans to strengthen landlord registration. The Welsh government is consulting on the introduction of a new legal framework for all rented accommodation.

This is the context for a major report from the communities and local government select committee on private renting in England. It outlines a set of proposals that would represent a much more active approach to managing the sector than is currently the case in England. The select committee favours a localist approach as a means to respond to the diversity of the private renting. The range of households accommodated by the sector is increasing and there is considerable geographic variation. For example, in some areas the growth in private renting is dominated by students whilst in other areas it is families that predominate. Each different group will have different needs and experience different problems with private renting.

Local authorities are at the heart of the select committee’s proposals. It is suggested that local authorities should be given greater powers to implement landlord licensing and generate revenue to enforce standards. Other measures being recommended include greater regulation of letting agents with a particular emphasis on removing unfair fees. Possibly the most substantive recommendation is that the government should introduce “a much simpler, more straightforward regulatory framework”. Finally, the committee assess the relationship between private renting and the on-going crisis in housing supply.

The growth of private renting in England can no longer be ignored. It is time for the government to carefully consider this sensible set of proposals from the select committee to ensure that the private rented sector provides decent accommodation for a growing number of tenants.

This piece was originally posted on the LSE's Politics and Policy blog and is reposted here with permission.

Ben Pattison is a postgraduate researcher at the University of Birmingham investigating the private rented sector in England.

Photo: Getty Images
Show Hide image

The Fire Brigades Union reaffiliates to Labour - what does it mean?

Any union rejoining Labour will be welcomed by most in the party - but the impact on the party's internal politics will be smaller than you think.

The Fire Brigades Union (FBU) has voted to reaffiliate to the Labour party, in what is seen as a boost to Jeremy Corbyn. What does it mean for Labour’s internal politics?

Firstly, technically, the FBU has never affliated before as they are notionally part of the civil service - however, following the firefighters' strike in 2004, they decisively broke with Labour.

The main impact will be felt on the floor of Labour party conference. Although the FBU’s membership – at around 38,000 – is too small to have a material effect on the outcome of votes themselves, it will change the tenor of the motions put before party conference.

The FBU’s leadership is not only to the left of most unions in the Trades Union Congress (TUC), it is more inclined to bring motions relating to foreign affairs than other unions with similar politics (it is more internationalist in focus than, say, the PCS, another union that may affiliate due to Corbyn’s leadership). Motions on Israel/Palestine, the nuclear deterrent, and other issues, will find more support from FBU delegates than it has from other affiliated trade unions.

In terms of the balance of power between the affiliated unions themselves, the FBU’s re-entry into Labour politics is unlikely to be much of a gamechanger. Trade union positions, elected by trade union delegates at conference, are unlikely to be moved leftwards by the reaffiliation of the FBU. Unite, the GMB, Unison and Usdaw are all large enough to all-but-guarantee themselves a seat around the NEC. Community, a small centrist union, has already lost its place on the NEC in favour of the bakers’ union, which is more aligned to Tom Watson than Jeremy Corbyn.

Matt Wrack, the FBU’s General Secretary, will be a genuine ally to Corbyn and John McDonnell. Len McCluskey and Dave Prentis were both bounced into endorsing Corbyn by their executives and did so less than wholeheartedly. Tim Roache, the newly-elected General Secretary of the GMB, has publicly supported Corbyn but is seen as a more moderate voice at the TUC. Only Dave Ward of the Communication Workers’ Union, who lent staff and resources to both Corbyn’s campaign team and to the parliamentary staff of Corbyn and McDonnell, is truly on side.

The impact of reaffiliation may be felt more keenly in local parties. The FBU’s membership looks small in real terms compared Unite and Unison have memberships of over a million, while the GMB and Usdaw are around the half-a-million mark, but is much more impressive when you consider that there are just 48,000 firefighters in Britain. This may make them more likely to participate in internal elections than other affiliated trade unionists, just 60,000 of whom voted in the Labour leadership election in 2015. However, it is worth noting that it is statistically unlikely most firefighters are Corbynites - those that are will mostly have already joined themselves. The affiliation, while a morale boost for many in the Labour party, is unlikely to prove as significant to the direction of the party as the outcome of Unison’s general secretary election or the struggle for power at the top of Unite in 2018. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.