A general view of housing in Brixton on January 30, 2013. Photograph: Getty Images.
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We need rent controls to solve London's housing crisis

Too many essential workers are being priced out of the capital. Rent controls could address the uncertainty and unaffordability they face.

In an unusual break from the disagreement, dissent and bickering that pervades politics, consensus has broken out amongst policy makers in the capital: London is in the midst of a housing crisis.

The facts are stark. Private rents in London have risen nine per cent since December 2011. Property price growth has returned to pre-2008 levels and is on the brink of exceeding it.Higher rents make it difficult to save a deposit, and rapid house price growth pushes the size of that deposit further and further out of reach. Indeed, those two factors combined mean that the projected average age by which a young person will be able to buy their first home in London is now 52. Sixty six per cent of first home buyers are supported by the bank of Mum and Dad in order to afford a deposit.

London has reached the point where the cost of housing is affecting productivity growth. We are on the cusp of having to bus in cleaners, retails workers and hospitality staff from the Shires because those on low incomes cannot afford London rents. Londoners on average already spend more than half of their income on paying their rent or mortgage. Not only does that disincentivise the best and brightest teachers and nurses from living in London, it also significantly reduces the disposable income of those with the highest propensity to spend, threatening the future of the retail sector in particular and the economic recovery in general.

London clearly needs to build more homes. A report by London Councils found we have 283,000 too few homes in London now, and we will need a further 526,000 by 2021 to cope with a growing population. But building hundreds of thousands of homes will not happen in the very short- term; meanwhile, Londoners are struggling to pay their rent.  With the monthly rent for a one-bedroom flat in Wandsworth sitting well above £1,100, it has become patently obvious that London needs some form of rent control.

But let me be clear about what I mean when I talk about rent control. I don’t mean the old-school "first generation" rent control that was introduced in the UK during the Great War, which prevents any increase in rents, diminishes investment returns in real-terms over time, and discourages people from becoming landlords. I don’t mean the type of rent control that keeps rents so low that they are not enough to pay for the proper maintenance of a home in a liveable condition. I mean rent controls that nod to the market but allow for the realities of what it is to have a home to live in; the type that are espoused by those who could hardly be called left-wing ideologues, including Angela Merkel and Michael Bloomberg.

Currently in London, a family can move into a home at an expensive but affordable rent. The landlord cannot evict them (except for non-payment of rent) for six months. But after a year that landlord can raise the rent as high as he or she would like to; the rent could be doubled without any notice to the tenant family, putting it completely out of the range of affordability. The family is obliged, then, to move house, move their childrens’ school, probably move to a different part of London, and pay another round of letting fees, bonds and two-months-rent-in-advance. The other option is to seek the landlord’s permission to sublet one of their bedrooms to another family, adding one more to the 207,000 London households already living in overcrowded conditions.

There is an alternative. Take, for example, the German system of rent controls. Renters have indefinite tenancies; a tenant can only be evicted for non payment of rent (over a number of months), damage to the property, unauthorised subletting, or to allow the landlord or a member of his or her family to live in the home or to sell the home. It is in the interests of a landlord to retain their current tenant because the costs of letting agents are borne by the landlord.  The initial rent is set by the market, but cannot be more than 20 per cent higher than similar properties in the area. Rents can be raised according to inflation or due to an increase in the landlord’s costs, but by no more than 20 per cent in any three-year period.  Further, proper maintenance of the property by the landlord is incentivised; a tenant only pays 100 per cent of the rent if the home is in 100 per cent good condition. Perhaps a system like Germany’s is exactly what London needs to address the uncertainty and unaffordability faced by tenants in our private rented sector.

A common criticism of rent controls is that they discourage investment in the private rented sector. But British history since the deregulation of the rental market in the late 80s has shown that argument to be flawed; 89 per cent of landlords are individuals or couples, not builders or developers. In general, they buy pre-existing properties as an investment or nest egg.  They aren’t the part of the housing market that builds new homes in London, though they do compete against first homebuyers for existing properties. The fact that more rental accommodation has not been built in London, with its high rent prices, shows the inelasticity of housing supply in London which has more to do with cautious developers, the planning process, and a scarcity of developable land than it does with rent prices.  

To encourage investment in new homes (rather than locking up investment equity in pre-existing houses), there could be concessions to rent controls on new developments. Maybe rent controls should not apply to any new property built after 1 January 2014. Or maybe they should not apply to the first tenant of any new development; that will have the added benefit of encouraging longer term leases by property developers.

We need to start getting serious about how to address the housing crisis in London, because it’s not just those on minimum wage or housing benefit that are struggling to afford to live here. Teachers, civil servants, retailers and service workers essential to the running of our city are all threatened by the crisis. Though not a silver bullet that will singlehandedly solve the crisis, we should think about how rent controls – done sensibly – can be part of a comprehensive plan to ensure that all Londoners can afford a home in our city.

David Lammy is Labour MP for Tottenham

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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle