It's Rental Freedom Day for Londoners. Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Happy Rental Freedom Day! A red letter day for proposing reform

On the day London tenants have earned enough to pay off their annual rental payments, it's time to talk about tenancy reform and building more homes.

Happy Rental Freedom Day! If you're a Londoner on an average income paying the average rent, today's the day you've earned enough to pay off your annual rental payments.

The date falls over a month after the equivalent day for homeowners. London also has the dubious distinction of reaching Rental Freedom Day almost two months later than the rest of the country, with the average UK renter celebrating it on the 12th May.

The median monthly rent in London is now £1,300 according to the Valuation Office Agency, with double digit annual rent inflation not uncommon. Many private renters are paying eye-watering sums for the privilege of living in poor quality properties with bad landlords. Thirty per cent of privately rented homes in London fail the Decent Homes Standard, and complaints against landlords are up 47 per cent since 2008.

London's private rented sector has almost doubled in size since 1991. The proportion of private renters with children increased from 19 per cent to 29 per cent between 2001 and 2011. Yet the laws governing how the sector is run have barely changed since rent controls were abolished in 1989.

Ed Miliband has put forward sensible proposals which will create longer, three year tenancies as standard, with a ceiling on annual rent increases within those contracts. This does not, as some have suggested, represent a return to the kind of rent controls that existed in Britain pre-1989. Anyone who suggests that is either ignorant or being wilfully dishonest. What his proposals represent are a shift to the kind of second generation rent regulation seen in most of our European neighbours.

But high rent is not the only cost facing those living in the private rented sector. Lettings agency fees hit tenants with big upfront costs before they even sign a tenancy agreement. Foxtons charge new tenants £420 as an "administration fee". Felicity J Lord charge £165 per property for a "tenancy agreement", £65 per person "for reference checks", a £60 "admin fee" and a £120 "check-in fee". A constituent that contacted me from the London Borough of Camden was asked by a letting agent to pay £300 just to be added to a tenancy agreement. He was told that this sum would not be refunded even if his references didn't come through.

Labour has proposed banning letting agents from charging upfront fees to tenants. This is the situation in Scotland, where lettings agents can only charge fees to landlords. When I challenged Boris Johnson to support this at Mayor's Question Time on Wednesday he refused to do so, despite agreeing that the kind of fees charged by Foxtons are unacceptable. Once again, the Mayor has chosen to put his faith blindly in the free market rather than support sensible regulation to protect tenants.

Tenancy reform would help to create a more stable private rented sector for tenants, and make the rental market more affordable. But ultimately the real solution to high rents is to build more homes. Despite the Mayor's boasts about his record on housing, London is only building a third of the 62,000 homes we need annually in order to solve our housing crisis. Meanwhile, leaked documents from DCLG show civil servants warning ministers that housebuilding nationally will drop 4 per cent this year despite already being at the lowest peacetime level since the 1920s.

Without reform of the private rented sector, and without a major housebuilding programme, Londoners will be celebrating Rental Freedom Day even later in the coming years.

Tom Copley AM is a Labour London Assembly member

Tom Copley is a Labour member of the London Assembly

How Jim Murphy's mistake cost Labour - and helped make Ruth Davidson

Scottish Labour's former leader's great mistake was to run away from Labour's Scottish referendum, not on it.

The strange revival of Conservative Scotland? Another poll from north of the border, this time from the Times and YouGov, shows the Tories experiencing a revival in Scotland, up to 28 per cent of the vote, enough to net seven extra seats from the SNP.

Adding to the Nationalists’ misery, according to the same poll, they would lose East Dunbartonshire to the Liberal Democrats, reducing their strength in the Commons to a still-formidable 47 seats.

It could be worse than the polls suggest, however. In the elections to the Scottish Parliament last year, parties which backed a No vote in the referendum did better in the first-past-the-post seats than the polls would have suggested – thanks to tactical voting by No voters, who backed whichever party had the best chance of beating the SNP.

The strategic insight of Ruth Davidson, the Conservative leader in Scotland, was to to recast her party as the loudest defender of the Union between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. She has absorbed large chunks of that vote from the Liberal Democrats and Labour, but, paradoxically, at the Holyrood elections at least, the “Unionist coalition” she assembled helped those parties even though it cost the vote share.

The big thing to watch is not just where the parties of the Union make gains, but where they successfully form strong second-places against whoever the strongest pro-Union party is.

Davidson’s popularity and eye for a good photo opportunity – which came first is an interesting question – mean that the natural benefactor in most places will likely be the Tories.

But it could have been very different. The first politician to hit successfully upon the “last defender of the Union” routine was Ian Murray, the last Labour MP in Scotland, who squeezed both the  Liberal Democrat and Conservative vote in his seat of Edinburgh South.

His then-leader in Scotland, Jim Murphy, had a different idea. He fought the election in 2015 to the SNP’s left, with the slogan of “Whether you’re Yes, or No, the Tories have got to go”.  There were a couple of problems with that approach, as one  former staffer put it: “Firstly, the SNP weren’t going to put the Tories in, and everyone knew it. Secondly, no-one but us wanted to move on [from the referendum]”.

Then again under different leadership, this time under Kezia Dugdale, Scottish Labour once again fought a campaign explicitly to the left of the SNP, promising to increase taxation to blunt cuts devolved from Westminster, and an agnostic position on the referendum. Dugdale said she’d be open to voting to leave the United Kingdom if Britain left the European Union. Senior Scottish Labour figures flirted with the idea that the party might be neutral in a forthcoming election. Once again, the party tried to move on – but no-one else wanted to move on.

How different things might be if instead of running away from their referendum campaign, Jim Murphy had run towards it in 2015. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

0800 7318496