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.

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Autumn Statement 2015: George Osborne abandons his target

How will George Osborne close the deficit after his U-Turns? Answer: he won't, of course. 

“Good governments U-Turn, and U-Turn frequently.” That’s Andrew Adonis’ maxim, and George Osborne borrowed heavily from him today, delivering two big U-Turns, on tax credits and on police funding. There will be no cuts to tax credits or to the police.

The Office for Budget Responsibility estimates that, in total, the government gave away £6.2 billion next year, more than half of which is the reverse to tax credits.

Osborne claims that he will still deliver his planned £12bn reduction in welfare. But, as I’ve written before, without cutting tax credits, it’s difficult to see how you can get £12bn out of the welfare bill. Here’s the OBR’s chart of welfare spending:

The government has already promised to protect child benefit and pension spending – in fact, it actually increased pensioner spending today. So all that’s left is tax credits. If the government is not going to cut them, where’s the £12bn come from?

A bit of clever accounting today got Osborne out of his hole. The Universal Credit, once it comes in in full, will replace tax credits anyway, allowing him to describe his U-Turn as a delay, not a full retreat. But the reality – as the Treasury has admitted privately for some time – is that the Universal Credit will never be wholly implemented. The pilot schemes – one of which, in Hammersmith, I have visited myself – are little more than Potemkin set-ups. Iain Duncan Smith’s Universal Credit will never be rolled out in full. The savings from switching from tax credits to Universal Credit will never materialise.

The £12bn is smaller, too, than it was this time last week. Instead of cutting £12bn from the welfare budget by 2017-8, the government will instead cut £12bn by the end of the parliament – a much smaller task.

That’s not to say that the cuts to departmental spending and welfare will be painless – far from it. Employment Support Allowance – what used to be called incapacity benefit and severe disablement benefit – will be cut down to the level of Jobseekers’ Allowance, while the government will erect further hurdles to claimants. Cuts to departmental spending will mean a further reduction in the numbers of public sector workers.  But it will be some way short of the reductions in welfare spending required to hit Osborne’s deficit reduction timetable.

So, where’s the money coming from? The answer is nowhere. What we'll instead get is five more years of the same: increasing household debt, austerity largely concentrated on the poorest, and yet more borrowing. As the last five years proved, the Conservatives don’t need to close the deficit to be re-elected. In fact, it may be that having the need to “finish the job” as a stick to beat Labour with actually helped the Tories in May. They have neither an economic imperative nor a political one to close the deficit. 

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