Is this renting’s watershed moment?

The problems of "Generation Rent" seem finally to be getting some political attention, but without more homes being built, renting will continue to boil over.

In a week that a parliamentary inquiry begins into the state of private renting, and official statistics confirm the seismic growth of Generation Rent, it’s starting to look like rental Britain is beginning to get the political attention it deserves.

More than nine million people now rent from a private landlord. With hundreds of thousands priced out of home ownership and unable to access social housing, renting is fast becoming the new normal. And figures this week finally confirmed that for the first time since the 1960s, more people rent their homes from a private landlord than from a council or housing association. More and more of us now understand the frustration of paying hundreds of pounds each month in "dead money" to landlords, for a home that we can’t make our own.

Last week, Shelter’s Rent Trap report painted the latest bleak picture of life for Generation Rent. While wages stagnate, rents are up in 83 per cent of the country; on average, renters are paying out £300 more each year. In some areas, that rises to more than £1,000 a year – and that’s on top of rents that are already higher than mortgage costs.

This is the rent trap: people can’t afford to buy, so are stuck paying high rents, leaving them with little left over for anything else - half have less than £100 after rent and bills. This means they’re not able to save enough for a home of their own - leaving them facing yet another year of renting. As homes remain increasingly unaffordable, this trap sucks in ever more young people who know that the dream of a place of their own is slipping away.  

But the rent trap isn’t just a social issue; it’s an increasingly political one too. Renters are an ever-larger political constituency, with many closely resembling the archetypical middle income voter. And for voters in marginal constituencies, renting is a bigger issue than ever.

Our report found that the cost of renting has increased substantially in a number of key electoral battlegrounds – meaning that prospective MPs will need to become more familiar with the realities of renting if they want to win or keep these seats. Renters in Solihull - a Lib/Con marginal - are paying almost £400 a year more in rent; Lab/Con marginal Thurrock saw rents increase by almost £300; and three way marginal Hampstead and Kilburn rents are up by more than £800. The subject of the newest by-election tussle – Chris Huhne’s Eastleigh seat – saw rents rise by 3.2 per cent over the past year – more than twice as fast as wages. Some might say: does it matter if people rent? It’s commonplace in Germany, and people seem perfectly happy renting there. Should we be worried about this trend?

The trouble is that renting in England isn’t set up to play the kind of role that it plays in Germany and other developed countries. Renting was deregulated in 1989 to provide flexibility for a mobile workforce – the Assured Shorthold Tenancy was introduced and 6-12 month contracts became the norm. Politicians at the time envisaged lots of young people moving around for work before they settled down, bought a home and had kids.

But that’s not the role that renting is playing now. A major part of the growth of renting in recent years has been from families with children – some 1.3 million families now rent. For these families, renting isn’t working. They’ll typically have short contracts, after which they can be asked to leave for any reason, or their rent can be increased with no upper limit. That’s far from ideal when you’re feeling financially squeezed – or when your children are starting a new school year without being sure of where they’ll be living come the summer holidays.

For years, successive governments have tinkered around the edges on renting. Politicians recognise that most don’t want to rent for the long term, so have focused on helping people into homeownership: guaranteeing 95 per cent mortgages, expanding shared ownership schemes. But these schemes aren’t going far enough – and this leaves families stuck in rented homes with no reassurance from government that things will ever improve.

It seems that some politicians are beginning to wake up to the new reality of renting. Boris Johnson has said he intends to pilot longer tenancies in London, and Conservative newcomer Jake Berry has made the case for them too. Meanwhile, Ed Miliband and Labour’s Shadow Housing Minister, Jack Dromey, have spoken about more widespread measures to make longer term contracts the norm, and called an Opposition Day debate on the issue in January.

This week, a Select Committee began sitting for an inquiry into the private rented sector, and Shelter gave oral evidence on Monday, telling the stories of the thousands of people who come to us for help with renting problems.

In the short-term, government needs to tackle the reality of rental Britain, because every indication shows that it’s here to stay. We’ve proposed the Stable Rental Contract: a five-year tenancy with predictable rent increases, which will give renters the certainty they can keep their children in a local school and plan their finances, while also helping reduce the risk of empty periods for landlords.

It’s good news that politicians are beginning to up their game – but they have to translate words into action, as voters will hold them to account. The truth is that the efforts of successive governments have not gone far enough in helping people on ordinary incomes get a decent, stable, affordable home.

The government needs a much bolder plan of action for helping people achieve this basic aspiration. The bottleneck of supply and demand is worsening. Without more homes being built, renting will continue to boil over. Rents will continue to rise; people will struggle even harder to put money aside; the dream of a home of their own will continue to slip away.

More than nine million people now rent from a private landlord. Photograph: Getty Images

Robbie de Santos is a policy officer at Shelter.

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“Rhodes must fall,” chants the crowd. But bringing down an imperialist’s statue won’t change the past

“Rhodes is a metaphor for the fact that the university is not a fully inclusive space,” says Sizwe Mpofu-Walsh.

You’ve got to look quite hard to spot it: a statue four feet high, rather attractive and informal, way above street level, on the façade of Oriel College on the High Street in Oxford. The only way you would know that it was Cecil John Rhodes, apart from the Latin inscription beneath the figure, is that he is wearing a three-piece suit and holding his familiar slouch hat in his right hand. Around this manikin a row of surprising proportions has arisen.

It is a by-blow of the much greater and far more serious dispute in South Africa, in the course of which Rhodes’s statue at the university he helped found in Cape Town has been hustled out of sight after being smeared with paint and excrement and surrounded time and again by angry, chanting students. Now the slogan “Rhodes must fall” has been picked up in the quieter atmosphere of Oxford. Oriel, which Rhodes briefly attended, is the centre of the fuss because it commemorates him with the statue in question. All this has given rise to an air of nervousness among some elements of the university hierarchy. But is it justified?

In the street outside the college, as many as 300 people gathered in the intermittent rain one recent Friday to listen to speeches, be taught some of the old liberation chants from Southern Africa and watch a bit of toyi-toying – of the kind we used to see in the days of the anti-apartheid demonstrations. A second-year history student told the crowd, “There’s a violence to having to walk past the statue every day on the way to your lectures.” Although most of us need to have the statue pointed out to us, that was greeted by applause. People often rather like the idea that they’re the victims of violence when there are no other signs of it.

Rhodes was an extraordinary man: a country clergyman’s sickly fifth son from Bishop’s Stortford who by sheer drive became one of the richest people on Earth, the founder of De Beers, the prime minister of the Cape Colony and the carver-out of two territories that eventually became Zambia and Zimbabwe. He also created one of the most effective and beneficial educational exchanges in the modern world – the Rhodes scholarships – and all this before his death at the age of 48.

He wasn’t a nice man, even by the standards of the time. Outspokenly racist and imperialist, he could sometimes sound Hitlerian: “Just fancy those parts [of Africa] that are at present inhabited by the most despicable specimens of human beings – what an alteration there would be if they were brought under Anglo-Saxon influence!” One of his personal secretaries turned against him when he talked with apparent relish about slaughtering black people. Still, Rhodes was complex: almost certainly gay, a supporter of Irish home rule and a Liberal. Although he helped to provoke the Boer War, he was a friend to the Cape Afrikaners and supported their language and culture.

The leading figure behind the “Rhodes must fall” campaign in Oxford is Sizwe Mpofu-Walsh, a South African doctoral student of philosophy whose teachers regard him with affection and respect. There is nothing about him of the menace of some of the protesters in Cape Town, who have chanted “One settler, one bullet” and, it is alleged, “Kill the whites” at demonstrations.

Mpofu-Walsh’s father is the national chairman of Julius Malema’s fiery Economic Freedom Fighters in South Africa but Sizwe follows a more sophisticated brand of protest, better adapted to the atmosphere of Oxford. “Rhodes is a metaphor for the fact that the university is not a fully inclusive space,” he says. He maintains that the curriculum at Oxford concentrates on Europe and the US rather than on the wider world, though that may be news to all those Rhodes scholars from Africa who have studied at Oxford and returned home to enrich the medical, philosophical and political lives of their countries. But Mpofu-Walsh touches a genuinely sensitive point when he points out that the university accepted only 24 black British undergraduates last year. “We want Oxford to improve its representation of black voices.”

You might think that Nelson Mandela’s decision to allow his name to be associated with that of Rhodes in South Africa, in forming the Mandela Rhodes Foundation, would give some protection to the old white supremacist. Not so. One of the more melancholy things that have happened in South Africa in recent years has been that Mandela, by taking his stand for reconciliation, has increasingly been seen as an Uncle Tom by many black people there – and the link with Rhodes hasn’t helped.

The desire to cleanse history of its unattractive sides isn’t restricted to Southern Africa. But the past is the past; it can’t be changed. Charles Conn, Warden of Rhodes House, Oxford, who oversees the Rhodes scholarships, says: “We should interrogate history, of course, and learn its lessons. Nearly all historical figures held views at odds with our perspectives today. Rhodes, Jowett, Jefferson, even Gandhi, had beliefs that we find out of touch and even abhorrent. But we don’t serve the pursuit of knowledge if we agree to airbrush or bulldoze history.”

Will Rhodes’s statue in Oxford be taken down, like the one outside Cape Town University? Surely not, if only for the prosaic reason that the Oriel building it stands on is listed and it will take a lot more than the shouted slogans of a few hundred students to get rid of it. For many, attacking the symbols that some minority happens to dislike smacks a bit too much of Islamic State blasting away the incomparable reliefs of Nimrud. But the demonstrators have a point. Oxford University ought to try to be less white, less Eurocentric, less everything that Cecil Rhodes once wanted it to be.

John Simpson is the world affairs editor of BBC News

John Simpson is World Affairs Editor of BBC News, having worked for the corporation since the beginning of his career in 1970. He has reported from more than 120 countries, including 30 war zones, and interviewed many world leaders.

This article first appeared in the 19 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The age of terror