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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North Yorkshire has approved the UK’s first fracking tests in five years. What does this mean?

Is fracking the answer to the UK's energy future? Or a serious risk to the environment?

Shale gas operation has been approved in North Yorkshire, the first since a ban introduced after two minor earthquakes in 2011 were shown to be caused by fracking in the area. On Tuesday night, after two days of heated debate, North Yorkshire councillors finally granted an application to frack in the North York Moors National Park.

The vote by the Tory-dominated council was passed by seven votes to four, and sets an important precedent for the scores of other applications still awaiting decision across the country. It also gives a much-needed boost to David Cameron’s 2014 promise to “go all out for shale”. But with regional authorities pitted against local communities, and national government in dispute with global NGOs, what is the wider verdict on the industry?

What is fracking?

Fracking, or “hydraulic fracturing”, is the extraction of shale gas from deep underground. A mixture of water, sand and chemicals is pumped into the earth at such high pressure that it literally fractures the rocks and releases the gas trapped inside.

Opponents claim that the side effects include earthquakes, polluted ground water, and noise and traffic pollution. The image the industry would least like you to associate with the process is this clip of a man setting fire to a running tap, from the 2010 US documentary Gasland

Advocates dispute the above criticisms, and instead argue that shale gas extraction will create jobs, help the UK transition to a carbon-neutral world, reduce reliance on imports and boost tax revenues.

So do these claims stands up? Let’s take each in turn...

Will it create jobs? Yes, but mostly in the short-term.

Industry experts imply that job creation in the UK could reflect that seen in the US, while the medium-sized production company Cuadrilla claims that shale gas production would create 1,700 jobs in Lancashire alone.

But claims about employment may be exaggerated. A US study overseen by Penn State University showed that only one in seven of the jobs projected in an industry forecast actually materialised. In the UK, a Friends of the Earth report contends that the majority of jobs to be created by fracking in Lancashire would only be short-term – with under 200 surviving the initial construction burst.

Environmentalists, in contrast, point to evidence that green energy creates more jobs than similar-sized fossil fuel investments.  And it’s not just climate campaigners who don’t buy the employment promise. Trade union members also have their doubts. Ian Gallagher, Secretary of Blackburn and District Trade Unions Council, told Friends of the Earth that: “Investment in the areas identified by the Million Climate Jobs Campaign [...] is a far more certain way of addressing both climate change and economic growth than drilling for shale gas.”

Will it deliver cleaner energy? Not as completely as renewables would.

America’s “shale revolution” has been credited with reversing the country’s reliance on dirty coal and helping them lead the world in carbon-emissions reduction. Thanks to the relatively low carbon dioxide content of natural gas (emitting half the amount of coal to generate the same amount of electricity), fracking helped the US reduce its annual emissions of carbon dioxide by 556 million metric tons between 2007 and 2014. Banning it, advocates argue, would “immediately increase the use of coal”.

Yet a new report from the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (previously known for its opposition to wind farm applications), has laid out a number of ways that the UK government can meet its target of 80 per cent emissions reduction by 2050 without necessarily introducing fracking and without harming the natural world. Renewable, home-produced, energy, they argue, could in theory cover the UK’s energy needs three times over. They’ve even included some handy maps:


Map of UK land available for renewable technologies. Source: RSPB’s 2050 Energy Vision.

Will it deliver secure energy? Yes, up to a point.

For energy to be “sustainable” it also has to be secure; it has to be available on demand and not threatened by international upheaval. Gas-fired “peaking” plants can be used to even-out input into the electricity grid when the sun doesn’t shine or the wind is not so blowy. The government thus claims that natural gas is an essential part of the UK’s future “energy mix”, which, if produced domestically through fracking, will also free us from reliance on imports tarnished by volatile Russian politics.

But, time is running out. Recent analysis by Carbon Brief suggests that we only have five years left of current CO2 emission levels before we blow the carbon budget and risk breaching the climate’s crucial 1.5°C tipping point. Whichever energy choices we make now need to starting brining down the carbon over-spend immediately.

Will it help stablise the wider economy? Yes, but not forever.

With so many “Yes, buts...” in the above list, you might wonder why the government is still pressing so hard for fracking’s expansion? Part of the answer may lie in their vested interest in supporting the wider industry.

Tax revenues from UK oil and gas generate a large portion of the government’s income. In 2013-14, the revenue from license fees, petroleum revenue tax, corporation tax and the supplementary charge accounted for nearly £5bn of UK exchequer receipts. The Treasury cannot afford to lose these, as evidenced in the last budget when George Osborne further subsidied North Sea oil operations through increased tax breaks.

The more that the Conservatives support the industry, the more they can tax it. In 2012 DECC said it wanted to “guarantee... every last economic drop of oil and gas is produced for the benefit of the UK”. This sentiment was repeated yesterday by energy minister Andrea Leadsom, when she welcomed the North Yorkshire decision and described fracking as a “fantastic opportunity”.

Dependence on finite domestic fuel reserves, however, is not a long-term economic solution. Not least because they will either run out or force us to exceed international emissions treaties: “Pensions already have enough stranded assets as they are,” says Danielle Pafford from 350.org.

Is it worth it? Most European countries have decided it’s not.

There is currently no commercial shale-gas drilling in Europe. Sustained protests against the industry in Romania, combined with poor exploration results, have already caused energy giant Chevron to pull out of the country. Total has also abandonned explorations in Denmark, Poland is being referred to the European Court of Justice for failing to adequately assess fracking’s impact, and, in Germany, brewers have launched special bottle-caps with the slogan “Nein! Zu Fracking” to warn against the threat to their water supply.

Back in the UK, the government's latest survey of public attitudes to fracking found that 44 per cent neither supported nor opposed the practice, but also that opinion is gradually shifting out of favour. If the government doesn't come up with arguments that hold water soon, it seems likely that the UK's fracking future could still be blasted apart.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.