Ed Miliband speaks to Labour supporters on January 17, 2014 in London. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Miliband's pledge to cap rent rises is smart politics

The Labour leader has offered relief to the millions who can't afford to buy and who long for security.

For months, Labour MPs and activists have been waiting for Ed Miliband to announce a sequel to his energy price freeze: another popular market intervention that demonstrates how the party would tackle the living standards crisis and that creates a powerful dividing line with the Tories. In the form of his new policy on private rents, Miliband may have just provided it.

At Labour's local and European election campaign launch in Redbridge tomorrow, he will pledge to cap rent rises and to extend the standard tenancy period from six months to three years. Alongside this, he will commit to banning letting agent fees, forcing landlords to bear the cost and saving the average new household £350. 

Under the plan, modelled on Ireland's recent reforms, an "upper ceiling", based on a benchmark such as inflation or the average market rent in the area, will be placed on rent increases to prevent "excessive rises", and tenants will automatically win the right to remain in their property for at least two-and-a-half years following a six month probation period. Landlords will only be able to terminate contracts with two months' notice if the tenant falls into arrears, is guilty of anti-social behaviour, or breaches their contract; or if they want to sell the property or use it for their family. Crucially, they will not be able to end tenancies simply to increase the rent. 

It is one of Miliband's most politically astute interventions to date. In the form of Help to Buy, the Tories have emphasised their commitment to expanding home ownership (although the policy will ultimately achieve the reverse), but they have had little to offer the large and growing number who are either unable (with or without state subsidy) or unwilling to buy. As Miliband will note in his speech tomorrow, there are now nine million people and 1.3 million households renting privately. There are a huge number of votes to be won from offering them a better deal.

A senior Labour source earlier denied to me that the party had embraced "rent controls" (since the market will still determine the starting level) but Miliband shouldn't run scared of the term. A YouGov poll of Londoners earlier this month found that 55 per cent support rent controls with just 19 per cent opposed - and little wonder. Renters are currently paying an average of £1,020 a year more than in 2010 and those in private accommodation have fared worst. In 2012, rent payments represented an average of 41 per cent of their gross income, compared with 30 per cent for social renters and 19 per cent for owner occupiers.

The beauty of the policy, in this era of fiscal constraint, is that it won't cost a penny of government money. Indeed, by limiting rent rises, it will reduce costs to the state by lowering housing benefit payments. By embracing predistribution (seeking more equal outcomes before the government collects taxes and pays out benefits), Miliband has found a way to reduce inequality whilst sticking to his tough deficit reduction targets.

Miliband isn't promising a reduction in rents, as some in Labour would wish, but he is promising the security and peace of mind that comes with knowing how much you will owe your landlord in three years' time. As he will say tomorrow: "These new longer-term tenancies will limit the amount that rents can rise by each year too - so landlords know what they can expect each year and tenants can’t be surprised by rents that go through the roof.

"This is Labour’s fair deal for rented housing in Britain: long-term tenancies and stable rents so that people can settle down, know where the kids will go to school, know their home will still be there for them tomorrow."

So keen are the Tories to kill the idea at birth that CCHQ rushed out a non-embargoed press release at 5:16pm, with Grant Shapps denouncing Miliband for proposing "Venezuelan-style rent controls" and caving in to Len McCluskey. But this stock leftie baiting won't resonate with an electorate crying out for relief from the ravages of the market (and with no interest in where Hugo  Chávez stood on the issue). As in the case of the energy price freeze, the Tories may denounce Miliband for "bringing back socialism", but they will soon discover that "socialism" is more popular than they think. And having performed the largest-ever state intervention in the mortgage market, through Help to Buy, they will struggle to attack Labour on libertarian grounds.

The Conservatives' aim is to present rent controls as ineffective as well as illiberal. Shapps said: "Evidence from Britain and around the world conclusively demonstrates that rent controls lead to poorer quality accommodation, fewer homes being rented and ultimately higher rents – hurting those most in need." Yet as Labour sources are pointing out, in Ireland, where longer-term tenancies and predictable rents were recently introduced, the private sector has grown, not shrunk. Forget Venezuela, Germany, New York, France and Spain all benefit from imposing limits on the market. 

"Generation rent is a generation that has been ignored for too long," Miliband will say tomorrow. But no longer - and it is Labour that will reap the political benefits.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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It's easy to see where Berlin is being rebuilt – just hit the streets

My week, from walking the streets of Berlin to class snobbery and the right kind of gentrification.

Brick by brick, block by block, the people are rebuilding the city once called Faust’s Metropolis. To see it clearly, put your boots on. One of the most bracing walks starts by the Gethsemane Church, which served as a haven for dissenters in the last days of the GDR and takes you down ­towards the Hackescher Markt.

Here, in what is still the eastern half of a divided city that wears its division more lightly, is a Berlin experience both old and new. In three decades of frequent visits, it has been fascinating to note how much this part of town has changed. Even a decade ago these streets were rundown. With crumbling buildings showing bulletholes, it wasn’t hard to imagine what the place looked like in 1945. Now there are lilacs, blues, and yellows. Cafés, bars and restaurants abound, serving the young professionals attracted to the city by cheap rents and a renewed sense of community.

 

Breaking the fourth wall

Looking north along Schliemannstraße, you’ll find a delightful vista of well-tended balconies. It’s a pleasant place to live, notwithstanding the gaggle of grotesques who gather round the corner in the square. On Kastanienallee, which forms the second leg of the walk, an old city feels young. It’s a kind of gentrification but the right kind. There’s more to eat, to drink, to buy, for all.

Berlin, where Bertolt Brecht staged his unwatchable plays, was supposed to have been transformed by a proletarian revolution. Instead, it has been restored to health by a very middle-class one. Germany has always had a well-educated middle class, and the nation’s restoration would have impossible without such people. The irony is delicious – not that irony buttered many parsnips for “dirty Bertie”.

 

The new snobbery

The British Museum’s survey of German history “Memories of a Nation” is being presented at the Martin-Gropius-Bau as “The British View”. Germans, natürlich, are curious to see how we observe them. But how do they see us?

A German friend recently in England  said that the images that struck him most forcibly were the tins of food and cheap booze people piled up in supermarkets, and the number of teenage girls pushing prams. Perhaps Neil MacGregor, the former director of the British Museum who will shortly take up a similar role here at the new Humboldt Forum, may turn his attention to a “German View” of the United Kingdom.

There’s no shortage of material. In Schlawinchen, a bar that typifies Kreuzberg’s hobohemia, a college-educated English girl was trying to explain northern England to an American she had just met. Speaking in an ugly modern Mancunian voice that can only be acquired through years of practice (sugar pronounced as “sug-oar”), she refer­red to Durham and York as “middle class, you know, posh”, because those cities had magnificent cathedrals.

When it comes to inverted snobbery, no nation can match us. To be middle class in Germany is an indication of civic value. In modern England, it can mark you as a leper.

 

Culture vultures

The Humboldt Forum, taking shape by the banks of the Spree, reconsecrates the former site of the GDR’s Palace of the Republic. When it opens in 2018 it will be a “living exhibition”, dedicated to all the cultures of the world. Alexander von Humboldt, the naturalist and explorer, was the brother of Wilhelm, the diplomat and philosopher, whose name lives on in the nearby university.

In Potsdamerplatz there are plans to build a modern art museum, crammed in between the Neue Nationalgalerie and the Philharmonie, home to the Berlin Philharmonic. Meanwhile, the overhaul of the Deutsche Staatsoper, where Daniel Barenboim is music director for life, is likely to be completed, fingers crossed, next autumn.

Culture everywhere! Or perhaps that should be Kultur, which has a slightly different meaning in Germany. They take these things more seriously, and there is no hint of bogus populism. In London, plans for a new concert hall have been shelved. Sir Peter Hall’s words remain true: “England is a philistine country that loves the arts.”

 

European neighbours

When Germans speak of freedom, wrote A J P Taylor, a historian who seems to have fallen from favour, they mean the freedom to be German. No longer. When modern Germans speak of freedom, they observe it through the filter of the European Union.

But nation states are shaped by different forces. “We are educated to be obedient,” a Berlin friend who spent a year at an English school once told me. “You are educated to be independent.” To turn around Taylor’s dictum: when the English speak of freedom,
they mean the freedom to be English.

No matter what you may have heard, the Germans have always admired our independence of spirit. We shall, however, always see “Europe” in different ways. Europe, good: we can all agree on that. The European Union, not so good. It doesn’t mean we have to fall out, and the Germans are good friends to have.

 

Hook, line and sinker

There are fine walks to be had in the west, too. In Charlottenburg, the Kensington of Berlin, the mood is gentler, yet you can still feel the city humming. Here, there are some classic places to eat and drink – the Literaturhauscafé for breakfast and, for dinner, Marjellchen, a treasure trove of east Prussian forest delights. Anything that can be shot and put in a pot!

For a real Berlin experience, though, head at nightfall for Zwiebelfisch, the great tavern on Savignyplatz, and watch the trains glide by on the other side of Kantstraße. Hartmut Volmerhaus, a most amusing host, has been the guvnor here for more than 30 years and there are no signs that his race is run. The “Fisch” at twilight: there’s nowhere better to feel the pulse of this remarkable city. 

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage