The private rental sector: misery, stress and poverty

Renting is the new normal, but for many it means no security and a constant risk of exploitation.

Much of the coverage regarding Britain's housing crisis has concentrated on the misery our over reliance on the private rental sector has inflicted on young people seeking to buy their first house. It's valid, but the sector takes a greater toll on those families who end up in its clutches.

For an illustration of this, listen to Paul Smith's story. He's 44, and he works in IT. Back in 2006 Paul was living in Malta with his wife and two children, then aged eight and six. They owned a house on the island, and decided it was time to move back to England. They put their house on the market; due to the discrepancy in property value, it only raised them about £30,000.

The family had no prior banking history in the UK, so they struggled to secure a mortgage. They put up a £7,000 deposit to rent a house in Bracknell. The house was fine, but Paul wanted more security for his family – he wanted them to go some way to having assured tenancy. Upon moving, the owners of the house, a private rental firm, hit Paul and his family with a bill for £1,500 due to alleged damage to the furniture.

(Your correspondent has actually been done over by a similar scheme when renting many years back – the owners of the house I was renting had called in a dodgy survey company to inspect the house at the start and end of my tenancy; being young and naive I'd not had a survey of my own done, so it seemed better to reach a settlement rather than fight it in the small claims court, much as I wanted to.)

The family moved to a run-down cottage in Ironbridge. After two years there, they were told the landlord wanted the place back. The landlord, who was registered through the local council, hit them with a bill for £600, despite the fact that the local council's environmental health team had helped them move (the place even had damp rot around the electrical sockets). The council claimed Paul would be able to get the £600 back: in fact, he was awarded £70 in compensation. For the third time in two years, the family moved – this time to a much more pleasant house in Telford. It was far better, but at the start of 2008 the family were offered a place with the housing association in Ludlow. They snapped it up, despite the fact that Paul had now lost his job in the financial crisis and work would be harder to find there.

The trouble was that the stress of constantly moving, coupled with the ebbing away of their financial situation (their savings were gradually eaten away by the costs of high rents and constant moves) had taken an unbearable toll on Paul's marriage. He and his wife split up last September.

"It was worse for the children," he tells me. "Every move involved finding them a new school, but they struggled to make friends before being dragged away to a new place. They never felt stable. It had a profound effect on my family."

Renting is the new normal. Over the last fifteen years, the number of people who rent their home from a landlord has almost doubled to 8.5 million people, and nearly a third of renters are members of families with children. Typically, these people are on contracts of 12 months or fewer. Paul's family were among the 67 per cent of families in the private rental sector who moved house in the last three years. Last year 310,000 out of 1,017,000 families with children in the sector moved: a shocking 30 per cent of all families. In comparison, 122,000 out of 3,863,000 families with children who own their home moved house last year: just three per cent.

Paul's situation was hardly unusual: as the charity Shelter has revealed, almost half of people who are renting privately say that housing costs are causing stress and depression in their family – a higher rate than any other group. The children of these families are not just suffering because of the constant upheaval - they're suffering because of the effect of parents who are poorer (the charity has also shown showed that 38 per cent of families with children who are renting privately have cut down on buying food to pay their rent), and more prone to arguing.

There are two reasons those in the private rental sector don't feel as if their accommodation is stable – the possibility of eviction with just two months' notice, and constant worries about when rent rises will hit. It's why Shelter is calling for a Stable Rental Contract, which it claims would offer the stability of five year tenancies.

The problem isn't necessarily due to the oft-imagined stereotype of cruel, Rachmanite landlords. In fact, it's often due to the fact that they are reliant on letting agents because they don't feel confident enough to rent the properties themselves – and the agents "add value" by encouraging short-term tenancies. Shelter has cited research by Jones Lang LaSalle, a real estate services firm, which shows that not only would it provide more security for tenants - it makes business sense for landlords, with a steadier, long-term income rising more gently with inflation that could increase their returns.

"I'm now an avid campaigner for affordable house building," Paul tells me. "It's a mystery to me why the Government is looking at spending money on things like HS2 when a comprehensive programme of affordable houses would put people in work and improve the lives of thousands. I wouldn't wish what I've been through on anybody."


Nearly a third of renters are members of families with children. Photograph: Getty Images

Alan White's work has appeared in the Observer, Times, Private Eye, The National and the TLS. As John Heale, he is the author of One Blood: Inside Britain's Gang Culture.

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Keir Starmer: “I don’t think anybody should underestimate the risks of getting Brexit wrong”

The former director of public prosecutions is now heading up Labour’s response to Brexit. But can he succeed in holding the Tories’ feet to the fire?

Early in his new role as shadow Brexit secretary, Keir Starmer was accused of being a “second-rate lawyer”. The gibe, in a Commons debate, came from none other than Iain Duncan Smith. Starmer was director of public prosecutions for five years and later stood for parliament in 2015. No novice, then. Within a few days, Duncan Smith stood again in the House, this time to offer his apologies.

A fortnight later, I met Starmer at his quiet office in Westminster. He was sitting at a table piled with papers, in an office that, a discreet family photo aside, was unadorned. He had just got back from a whirlwind trip to Brussels, with many more such visits planned in the weeks ahead.

Starmer returned to the shadow cabinet after Jeremy Corbyn’s second leadership election victory last month. “The series of agreements we will have to reach in the next few years is probably the most important and complex we’ve had to reach since the Second World War,” he told me.

Starmer, who is 54, took his time entering politics. Born in 1962, he grew up in a Labour-supporting household in Surrey – his father was a toolmaker and his mother a nurse – and was named after Keir Hardie. After studying law at Leeds University, he practised as a human rights barrister and became a QC in 2002. In 2008, after varied legal work that included defending environmental campaigners in the McLibel case, he became the head of the Crown Prosecution Service for England and Wales as well as director of public prosecutions, positions he held until 2013.

When in 2015 Starmer ran for a seat in parliament to represent Holborn and St Pancras in London, it was assumed he would soon be putting his expertise to use in government. Instead, after Labour’s election defeat under Ed Miliband, he served as one of Corbyn’s junior shadow ministers, but resigned after the EU referendum in June.

Now, he is back on the opposition front bench and his forensic scrutiny of government policy is already unsettling the Conservatives. Philippe Sands, the law professor who worked with him on Croatia’s genocide lawsuit against Serbia, says he couldn’t think of anyone better to take on the Brexiteers in parliament. “It’s apparent that the government is rather scared of him,” Sands said. This is because Starmer is much more capable of teasing out the legal consequences of Brexit than the average Brexit-supporting Tory MP. Sands added: “It would be fun to watch if the stakes weren’t so very high.”

Starmer is a serious man and refused to be drawn on the character of his opponents. Instead, speaking slowly, as if weighing every word, he spelled out to me the damage they could cause. “The worst scenario is the government being unable to reach any meaningful agreement with the EU and [the UK] crashing out in March 2019 on no terms, with no transitional arrangement.” The result could be an economic downturn and job losses: “I don’t think anybody should underestimate the risks of getting this wrong.”

If Starmer seems pessimistic, it is because he believes time is short and progress has been slow. Since the referendum, disgruntled MPs have focused their attention on the final Brexit settlement. Yet if, as he argues, the starting position for our negotiations with the EU is wrong, the damage will have been done. MPs faced with a bad deal must either approve it or “risk the UK exiting the EU without a deal at all”.

It is this conviction that is driving his frantic schedule now. Starmer’s first month in the job is packed with meetings - with the representatives of the devolved nations, business leaders and his European counterparts.

He has also become a familiar face at the dispatch box. Having secured a commitment from David Davis, the minister for Brexit, that there will be transparent debate – “the words matter” – he is now demanding that plans to be published in January 2017 at the earliest, and that MPs will have a vote at this stage.

In his eyes, it will be hard for the Prime Minister, Theresa May, to resist, because devolved parliaments and the European parliament will almost certainly be having a say: “The idea there will be a vote in the devolved administrations but not in Westminster only needs to be stated to see it’s unacceptable.”

In Europe, Starmer said, the view is already that Britain is heading for the cliff edge. It was May’s pledge, that after Brexit the UK would not “return to the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice”, which raised alarm. And among voters, there is “increasing anxiety” about the direction in which the UK is moving, he said. Even Tory voters are writing to him.

In the Labour Party, which is putting itself back together again after the summer’s failed coup, immigration remains the most vexed issue. Starmer told me that Labour had “earned a reputation for not listening” on the issue. Speaking on The Andrew Marr Show shortly after becoming shadow Brexit secretary, he said immigration was too high and ought to be reduced. But later that same day, Diane Abbott, a shadow cabinet colleague, contradicted him, publicly criticising immigration targets.

Starmer believes there is a bigger picture to consider when it comes to Britain’s Brexit negotiations. Take national security, where he warns that there are “significant risks” if communications break down between the UK and the EU. “Part of the negotiations must be ensuring we have the same level of co-operation on criminal justice, counterterrorism, data-sharing,” he said.

Crucially, in a Labour Party where many experienced politicians are backbench dissenters, he wants to reach out to MPs outside the shadow cabinet. “We have to work as Team Labour,” he stressed.

It’s a convincing rallying cry. But for some MPs, he represents more than that: a lone moderate in what can be seen as a far-left leadership cabal. Does he have any ambitions to lead Labour? “Having had two leadership elections in the space of 12 months, the last thing we need at the moment is discussion of the leadership of the Labour Party.” He has agreed to serve in the shadow cabinet, and is determined to stay there.

Starmer has found his purpose in opposition. “If we think things aren’t going right, we’ve got to call it out early and loudly. The worst situation is that we arrive at March 2019 with the wrong outcome. By then, it will be too late.”

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

This article first appeared in the 27 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, American Rage