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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Owen Smith promises to be a "cold-eyed revolutionary" - but tiptoes round Brexit

The Labour leader challenger takes Jeremy Corbyn on at his own anti-austerity game. 

Owen Smith may be challenging Jeremy Corbyn for the Labour leadership but it seems he has learnt a thing or two from his former boss. 

One year on from abstaining from the Tory Welfare Bill - a decision he now says he regrets - Smith attacked the former Chancellor George Osborne’s austerity policies from Orgreave, a former steel plant which was pivotal during the miners’ strike.  

Listing frustrations from library cuts to delayed trains, Smith declared: “Behind all of these frustrations is one cause – austerity.”

Borrowing the rhetoric that served Corbyn so well, he banged the drum about pay, labour rights and fair taxes. 

Indeed, a spokesman from Jeremy for Labour popped up to say as much: “We welcome Owen’s focus on equality of outcome, reindustrialisation and workers' rights - and his support for policies announced in recent months by Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell.”

On policy, though, Smith showed a touch of his own. 

His description of the Department for Work and Pensions as “a byword for cruelty and insecurity” resonates with the deep fear many benefit claimants feel for this faceless but all powerful authority. His promise to scrap it will not go unnoticed.

Another promise, to end the public sector pay freeze, is timely given widespread expectations that withdrawing from the EU’s single market will push up prices. 

He also appealed to the unions with a pledge to scrap the “vicious and vindictive” Trade Union Act. 

The policies may be Corbynite, but where Smith stands out is his determination to be specific and practical. He is selling himself as the Corbyn who actually gets things done. Asked about what he would replace zero-hours contracts with, he responded: "Well it could be one [hour]. But it can't be zero."

As he concluded his speech, he promised “revolution” but continued:

“Not some misty eyed romanticism about a revolution to overthrow capitalism.

“But a cold-eyed, practical, socialist revolution, through a radical Labour Government that puts in place the laws and the levers that can genuinely even things up.”

Smith’s speech, though, steered clear of grappling with the big issues of Brexit. He stands in favour of a second referendum on the Brexit deal, which may appease Labour's inner city voters but could frustrate others who voted Leave.

On the free movement of people – widely viewed as a dividing line between Labour’s Corbynite members and the wider voting population - he has been vague. He has previously expressed support for the "progressive case against freedom of movement" and criticised Corbyn for failing to understand patriotism. But this is not the same as drawing up policy. Whether he can come up with strong views on immigration and still appeal to both voter bases will be his biggest challenge of all. 

Owen Smith's 20 policies

1.      A pledge to focus on equality of outcome, not equality of opportunity 
2.      Scrapping the DWP and replacing it with a Ministry for Labour and a Department for Social Security
3.      Introducing modern wages councils for hotel, shop and care workers to strengthen terms and conditions
4.      Banning zero hour contracts
5.      Ending the public sector pay freeze
6.      Extending the right to information and consultation to cover all workplaces with more than 50 employees
7.      Ensuring workers’ representation on remuneration committees
8.      Repealing the Trade Union Act
9.      Increase spending on the NHS by 4 per cent in real-terms in every year of the next parliament
10.  Commit to bringing NHS funding up to the European average within the first term of a Labour Government
11.  Greater spending on schools and libraries
12.  Re-instate the 50p top rate of income tax
13.  Reverse the reductions in Corporation Tax due to take place over the next four years
14.  Reverse cuts to Inheritance Tax announced in the Summer Budget
15.  Reverse cuts to Capital Gains Tax announced in the Summer Budget
16.  Introduce a new wealth Tax on the top 1 per cent earners
17.  A British New Deal unveiling £200bn of investment over five years
18.  A commitment to invest tens of billions in the North of England, and to bring forward High Speed 3
19.  A pledge to build 300,000 homes in every year of the next parliament – 1.5 million over five years
20.  Ending the scandal of fuel poverty by investing in efficient energy