A general view of housing near Herne Hill in London. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Labour will get Britain building to tackle high rents

The lack of supply is the principal cause of unaffordable rents and house prices. 

Today Ed Miliband announced that a Labour government would legislate to make three year long-term tenancies with predictable rents the norm and ban letting fees being charged to tenants, as part of our plan to deal with the cost of living crisis.

Nine million people now rent privately in England. And it’s not just young people: 1.3 million families also live in privately rented housing, and for far too many of them that means a great deal of insecurity. They have to live with the uncertainty that their rents could jump up from one year to the next and that they won't be able to stay in their home. 

Labour will make three year tenancies the norm. If a tenant wants a shorter tenancy, they will of course be able to get one, but the default will be that they can have three years as of right.  As long as they pay their rent, don’t commit anti-social behaviour or crime, or damage the property, they should have the stability to make their flat or house a home in the local community. Of course if a landlord needs to move back in or sell the property, they’ll have the ability to do so. But the default will be clear. This is also good for landlords because what they want are good tenants paying the rent every month of the year, rather than tenants moving in and out which means there are times they are getting no rent at all.

On rents, we’re suggesting that they be set initially, just as happens now, between the landlord and the tenant in line with the market and after negotiation. But once that rent is set, landlords should not be able to put it up unfairly or disproportionately during the term of the three year tenancy. At present, tenants can face unpredictable and costly rent hikes if they want to renew each year. So we will legislate to set a ceiling on any increase; what this ceiling will be will be decided on the basis of consultation with tenants, policy experts and, of course, landlords.

On lettings agents, we will ban charges being levied on tenants, rather like what happens with estate agents, where it is the vendor who pays all the agent’s fees and charges and not the buyer. Some lettings agent charges can be disproportionately high and can involve both the landlord and the tenant being charged for the same thing; for example charging both landlord and tenant £100 just for a credit reference check. We will put an end to this.

But we don’t just want to deal with the private rented sector’s problems to offer more security and stability. We all know that the lack of homes being built is the principal cause of high rents and high house prices. And that’s why Ed Miliband has pledged to get Britain building. We want to be building 200,000 homes a year by the end of the next Parliament. The Tories have presided over the lowest level of housebuilding in peacetime since the 1920s and ours is an ambitious target. So we’ve pledged to work with communities and local authorities to unlock land and consent to build a new generation of homes, including new towns and garden cities.

I believe that in the same way that so many young renters, their parents and families locked out of owning their own home have reacted positively to Ed’s announcement today, communities around the country do see that we need to build more homes. Otherwise we will condemn Generation Rent to insecurity and the possibility of never having a home of their own.

In this way, we can help people who either want to rent, or are having to rent, to enjoy the peace of mind that they can be part of their community, put down roots, send their children to school, keep their local job and not have to pick up their belongings and lives and move. Peace of mind that they can plan their finances and not have to worry that they might be out of their home if the rent suddenly jumps up. And peace of mind that a Labour government will work hard to ensure they get the chance to buy a place of their own.

Hilary Benn is shadow foreign secretary, and Labour MP for Leeds Central.

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Ansbach puts Europe's bravest politician under pressure

Angela Merkel must respond to a series of tragedies and criticisms of her refugee policy. 

Angela Merkel, the Chancellor of Germany, is supposed to be on holiday. Two separate attacks have put an end to that. The first, a mass shooting in Munich, was at first widely believed to be a terrorist attack, but later turned out to be the actions of a loner obsessed with US high school shootings. The second, where a man blew himself up in the town of Ansbach, caused less physical damage - three were seriously injured, but none killed. Nevertheless, this event may prove to affect even more people's lives. Because that man had come to Germany claiming to be a Syrian refugee. 

The attack came hours after a Syrian refugee murdered a pregnant Polish woman, a co-woker in a snack bar, in Reutlingen. All eyes will now be on Merkel who, more than any other European politician, is held responsible for Syrian refugees in Europe.

In 2015, when other European states were erecting barriers to keep out the million migrants and refugees marching north, Merkel kept Germany's borders open. The country has resettled 41,899 Syrians since 2013, according to the UNHCR, of which 20,067 came on humanitarian grounds and 21,832 through private sponsorship. That is twice as much as the UK has pledged to resettle by 2020. The actual number of Syrians in Germany is far higher - 90 per cent of the 102,400 Syrians applying for EU asylum in the first quarter of 2016 were registered there. 

Merkel is the bravest of Europe's politicians. Contrary to some assertions on the right, she did not invent the refugee crisis. Five years of brutal war in Syria did that. Merkel was simply the first of the continent's most prominent leaders to stop ignoring it. If Germany had not absorbed so many refugees, they would still be in central Europe and the Balkans, and we would be seeing even more pictures of starved children in informal camps than we do today. 

Equally, the problems facing Merkel now are not hers alone. These are the problems facing all of Europe's major states, whether or not they recognise them. 

Take the failed Syrian asylum seeker of Ansbach (his application was rejected but he could not be deported back to a warzone). In Germany, his application could at least be considered, and rejected. Europe as a whole has not invested in the processing centres required to determine who is a Syrian civilian, who might be a Syrian combatant and who is simply taking advantage of the black market in Syrian passports to masquerade as a refugee. 

Secondly, there is the subject of trauma. The Munich shooter appears to have had no links to Islamic State or Syria, but his act underlines the fact you do not need a grand political narrative to inflict hurt on others. Syrians who have experienced unspeakable violence either in their homeland or en route to Europe are left psychologically damaged. That is not to suggest they will turn to violence. But it is still safer to offer such people therapy than leave them to drift around Europe, unmonitored and unsupported, as other countries seem willing to do. 

Third, there is the question of lawlessness. Syrians have been blamed for everything from the Cologne attacks in January to creeping Islamist radicalisation. But apart from the fact that these reports can turn out to be overblown (two of the 58 men arrested over Cologne were Syrians), it is unclear what the alternative would be. Policies that force Syrians underground have already greatly empowered Europe's network of human traffickers and thugs.

So far, Merkel seems to be standing her ground. Her home affairs spokesman, Stephan Mayer, told the BBC that Germany had room to improve on its asylum policy, but stressed each attack was different. 

He said: "Horrible things take place in Syria. And it is the biggest humanitarian catastrophe, so it is completely wrong to blame Angela Merkel, or her refugee policies, for these incidents." Many will do, all the same.