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.

Getty
Show Hide image

How tribunal fees silenced low-paid workers: “it was more than I earned in a month”

The government was forced to scrap them after losing a Supreme Court case.

How much of a barrier were employment tribunal fees to low-paid workers? Ask Elaine Janes. “Bringing up six children, I didn’t have £20 spare. Every penny was spent on my children – £250 to me would have been a lot of money. My priorities would have been keeping a roof over my head.”

That fee – £250 – is what the government has been charging a woman who wants to challenge their employer, as Janes did, to pay them the same as men of a similar skills category. As for the £950 to pay for the actual hearing? “That’s probably more than I earned a month.”

Janes did go to a tribunal, but only because she was supported by Unison, her trade union. She has won her claim, although the final compensation is still being worked out. But it’s not just about the money. “It’s about justice, really,” she says. “I think everybody should be paid equally. I don’t see why a man who is doing the equivalent job to what I was doing should earn two to three times more than I was.” She believes that by setting a fee of £950, the government “wouldn’t have even begun to understand” how much it disempowered low-paid workers.

She has a point. The Taylor Review on working practices noted the sharp decline in tribunal cases after fees were introduced in 2013, and that the claimant could pay £1,200 upfront in fees, only to have their case dismissed on a technical point of their employment status. “We believe that this is unfair,” the report said. It added: "There can be no doubt that the introduction of fees has resulted in a significant reduction in the number of cases brought."

Now, the government has been forced to concede. On Wednesday, the Supreme Court ruled in favour of Unison’s argument that the government acted unlawfully in introducing the fees. The judges said fees were set so high, they had “a deterrent effect upon discrimination claims” and put off more genuine cases than the flimsy claims the government was trying to deter.

Shortly after the judgement, the Ministry of Justice said it would stop charging employment tribunal fees immediately and refund those who had paid. This bill could amount to £27m, according to Unison estimates. 

As for Janes, she hopes low-paid workers will feel more confident to challenge unfair work practices. “For people in the future it is good news,” she says. “It gives everybody the chance to make that claim.” 

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.