How Labour plans to crack down on payday loan sharks

Miliband will announce that the party would give councils new powers to limit the spread of payday lenders and betting shops on the high street.

Ed Miliband will return from holiday to launch Labour's local election campaign today and he's prepared a new policy for the occasion. Speaking in Ipswich, Miliband will announce plans to allow communities to halt the spread of payday loan sharks, bookmakers and fast food outlets along their high streets.

At present, if a high street bank closes down, councils are powerless to stop a payday lender moving in, despite the negative effect they can have on the area, because they are classed as the same kind of business. In the last year, there has been a 20 per cent rise in the number of payday loan firms as well as a significant increase in betting shops and pawnbrokers. Miliband will aim to reverse this trend by granting councils new powers to prevent such businesses opening. According to the party, Labour would reform planning laws by creating "an additional umbrella class which allows local councils to decide if they want to place some premises in a separate planning category." This would allow local authorities to refuse planning permission on the grounds that, for instance, opening a payday loan shop would constitute a change of use. In addition, it would allow councils to limit the spread of other types of outlet where there is local concern such as betting shops and fast food takeaways. 

In proposing the change, Miliband will cite the example of Chatham in Kent, where 23 payday lenders operate within a mile of the high street and where residents complain that their presence is increasing levels of personal debt in the area. He will say: 

Too many councils are finding that they don’t have the real power to stand up for local people. But that is what politics is supposed to be about: standing up for those without power and giving power to them. Currently if a bank branch closes down, there’s nothing a council can do if a payday loan shop wants to move in and open up in the same place. Even if there's another lender next door. That can’t be right.

The policy is a notable example of Miliband's embrace of Blue Labour-style small c-conservatism and he will contrast his stance with that of David Cameron. 

David Cameron’s government used to say it would give people that kind of chance. But it hasn’t delivered. In fact, it is moving in the opposite direction. Not standing up to the powerful interests. So it is up to us to give local people a proper chance to protect the places that they love. To turn their high streets around.

The crackdown on payday lenders is one of the five policies Labour has chosen to prioritise for its local election campaign. The other four are:

- Cancelling the cut in the 50p income tax rate (dubbed "the millionaires' tax cut") and protecting tax credits for low paid workers.

- Introducing a mansion tax on property values over £2m in order to fund the reintroduction of a 10p tax rate on the first £1,000 of earnings above the personal allowance.

-Reforming the energy market to break the stranglehold of the big six energy companies.

-Cracking down on train companies who are putting "the price of the daily commute further and further out of reach". 

After his absence last week, it will also be worth watching to see what Miliband has to say about George Osborne's decision to link the Philpott case to the government's welfare cuts, which he was privately appalled by. 

Miliband will say that "too many councils are finding that they don’t have the real power to stand up for local people". Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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It's a stab in the dark: the myth of predicting your student loan repayments

Even the company responsible for collecting repayments admits that it can't tell students what they'll be.

In response to renewed calls to overhaul the student finance system, the universities minister Jo Johnson insisted last week that the "current system works". He pointed out that a university degree boosts "lifetime income by between £170,000 and £250,000".

What he failed to mention is that not even the people administering the loan system can tell students what they will be expected to pay back each month, because they can't work out what they'll earn. 

When asked by the New Statesman why it had pulled an online calculator designed to tell students what their repayments would be, the Student Loans Company (SLC) said it wasn't "possible to answer customers' questions about how long it will take to repay their loan or how much they will owe at a point in the future because there is no accurate way of predicting their future earning".

The confusion around student loans stems from the fact that, unlike loans from banks, their repayment is income contingent.

Until May last year, the SLC had a calculator on its website which students and parents could use to predict how much they may have to repay in the future. But after Andrew McGettigan, a higher education journalist, emailed the SLC noting that the calculator did not take into account gender inequality in future salaries, it was swiftly taken down. 

It was in response to queries about this calculator from the New Statesman that the SLC admitted that there was no accurate way to predict future repayments. The organisation added that it was "exploring new and better ways to present information" to its customers. 

This admission appears to undermine Johnson’s “fair and equitable” description of the student finance system. If even SLC can't say what repayments could look like, how do we know? 

Further controversy around student loan repayments is expected when a report is published later this year by the Department for Education on student finance and expenditure. This is expected to highlight the discrepancy between the maintenance loans students receive and rising rent costs. 

There are still a range of unofficial student loan calculators on the internet, but many use overly optimistic projections for future earnings. McGettigan says this is because they are based on salary trends from the 1980s to the 2010s. He also adds that these unofficial calculators are all based on the official one that was removed – and that they also do not take into account the impact of Brexit. It's a stab in the dark.

The SLC notes that "every student who applies for their student finance online must navigate a page of key repayment information that outlines six points". Student loans are inherently complicated by design, but as Amatey Doku, NUS vice president (higher education), makes clear, this has consequences for fair access to higher education. “We know that BME and poorer students are more worried about high levels of debt than any other group, but the current system does not provide adequate support for those about to enter it.”

Students seeking advice from an independent body will be hard-pressed to find one. The independent Student Finance Taskforce set up by the coalition government in 2011, which sought “to reassure potential students about what they can expect when applying for university and beyond”, was quietly discontinued and never replaced. 

Read more: Jeremy Corbyn's opponents are going down a blind alley on tuition fees

Further confusion surrounds the government’s framing of student finance to sixth formers. Beyond the debate surrounding tuition fees, there is the assumption that has never been made explicit by either political party, which is that students who have a household income of more than £25,000 are expected to have some form of financial support from their families for living costs.

Are parents made aware of this before their children apply to university? Unlike in America, where parents are encouraged to put money away into a “college fund”, the British government never openly encourages parents to save specifically to send their children to university. 

Although there is “no specific date” for its publishing, the Department for Education's report is is believed to argue that, much like the NUS’s debt report did in 2015, that the current system results in poorer students having to take excessive part-time work during the university term. Some also have to take on commercial loans. The stress of both can have an adverse effect on students' mental health.

All this, and not even the organisation responsible for collecting repayments can tell students how much they will be paying back.