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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Q&A: What are tax credits and how do they work?

All you need to know about the government's plan to cut tax credits.

What are tax credits?

Tax credits are payments made regularly by the state into bank accounts to support families with children, or those who are in low-paid jobs. There are two types of tax credit: the working tax credit and the child tax credit.

What are they for?

To redistribute income to those less able to get by, or to provide for their children, on what they earn.

Are they similar to tax relief?

No. They don’t have much to do with tax. They’re more of a welfare thing. You don’t need to be a taxpayer to receive tax credits. It’s just that, unlike other benefits, they are based on the tax year and paid via the tax office.

Who is eligible?

Anyone aged over 16 (for child tax credits) and over 25 (for working tax credits) who normally lives in the UK can apply for them, depending on their income, the hours they work, whether they have a disability, and whether they pay for childcare.

What are their circumstances?

The more you earn, the less you are likely to receive. Single claimants must work at least 16 hours a week. Let’s take a full-time worker: if you work at least 30 hours a week, you are generally eligible for working tax credits if you earn less than £13,253 a year (if you’re single and don’t have children), or less than £18,023 (jointly as part of a couple without children but working at least 30 hours a week).

And for families?

A family with children and an income below about £32,200 can claim child tax credit. It used to be that the more children you have, the more you are eligible to receive – but George Osborne in his most recent Budget has limited child tax credit to two children.

How much money do you receive?

Again, this depends on your circumstances. The basic payment for a single claimant, or a joint claim by a couple, of working tax credits is £1,940 for the tax year. You can then receive extra, depending on your circumstances. For example, single parents can receive up to an additional £2,010, on top of the basic £1,940 payment; people who work more than 30 hours a week can receive up to an extra £810; and disabled workers up to £2,970. The average award of tax credit is £6,340 per year. Child tax credit claimants get £545 per year as a flat payment, plus £2,780 per child.

How many people claim tax credits?

About 4.5m people – the vast majority of these people (around 4m) have children.

How much does it cost the taxpayer?

The estimation is that they will cost the government £30bn in April 2015/16. That’s around 14 per cent of the £220bn welfare budget, which the Tories have pledged to cut by £12bn.

Who introduced this system?

New Labour. Gordon Brown, when he was Chancellor, developed tax credits in his first term. The system as we know it was established in April 2003.

Why did they do this?

To lift working people out of poverty, and to remove the disincentives to work believed to have been inculcated by welfare. The tax credit system made it more attractive for people depending on benefits to work, and gave those in low-paid jobs a helping hand.

Did it work?

Yes. Tax credits’ biggest achievement was lifting a record number of children out of poverty since the war. The proportion of children living below the poverty line fell from 35 per cent in 1998/9 to 19 per cent in 2012/13.

So what’s the problem?

Well, it’s a bit of a weird system in that it lets companies pay wages that are too low to live on without the state supplementing them. Many also criticise tax credits for allowing the minimum wage – also brought in by New Labour – to stagnate (ie. not keep up with the rate of inflation). David Cameron has called the system of taxing low earners and then handing them some money back via tax credits a “ridiculous merry-go-round”.

Then it’s a good thing to scrap them?

It would be fine if all those low earners and families struggling to get by would be given support in place of tax credits – a living wage, for example.

And that’s why the Tories are introducing a living wage...

That’s what they call it. But it’s not. The Chancellor announced in his most recent Budget a new minimum wage of £7.20 an hour for over-25s, rising to £9 by 2020. He called this the “national living wage” – it’s not, because the current living wage (which is calculated by the Living Wage Foundation, and currently non-compulsory) is already £9.15 in London and £7.85 in the rest of the country.

Will people be better off?

No. Quite the reverse. The IFS has said this slightly higher national minimum wage will not compensate working families who will be subjected to tax credit cuts; it is arithmetically impossible. The IFS director, Paul Johnson, commented: “Unequivocally, tax credit recipients in work will be made worse off by the measures in the Budget on average.” It has been calculated that 3.2m low-paid workers will have their pay packets cut by an average of £1,350 a year.

Could the government change its policy to avoid this?

The Prime Minister and his frontbenchers have been pretty stubborn about pushing on with the plan. In spite of criticism from all angles – the IFS, campaigners, Labour, The Sun – Cameron has ruled out a review of the policy in the Autumn Statement, which is on 25 November. But there is an alternative. The chair of parliament’s Work & Pensions Select Committee and Labour MP Frank Field has proposed what he calls a “cost neutral” tweak to the tax credit cuts.

How would this alternative work?

Currently, if your income is less than £6,420, you will receive the maximum amount of tax credits. That threshold is called the gross income threshold. Field wants to introduce a second gross income threshold of £13,100 (what you earn if you work 35 hours a week on minimum wage). Those earning a salary between those two thresholds would have their tax credits reduced at a slower rate on whatever they earn above £6,420 up to £13,100. The percentage of what you earn above the basic threshold that is deducted from your tax credits is called the taper rate, and it is currently at 41 per cent. In contrast to this plan, the Tories want to halve the income threshold to £3,850 a year and increase the taper rate to 48 per cent once you hit that threshold, which basically means you lose more tax credits, faster, the more you earn.

When will the tax credit cuts come in?

They will be imposed from April next year, barring a u-turn.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.