Over the weekend the government announced plans to introduce three-year tenancies for private renters – a change from the current minimum of six months. Shelter was among those welcoming the change as an important step in the right direction.
The new policy is a bold statement of intent from the new Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, James Brokenshire. It demonstrates his determination to hear to the dissatisfaction of renters, and to respond with real action, after years and years in which they’ve been ignored by both major parties. If he can succeed it will be a major achievement, but make no mistake, this policy will have its opponents in the housing sector. The Housing Secretary will have to show his mettle if his big reform is to become reality.
Greater stability for private renters is something we have long campaigned for at Shelter – and though there’s definitely room to go beyond the three years proposed, if implemented this would still make a big difference to millions of people’s lives.
Sadly, not everyone is so happy about it. A leading landlord group put out a statement opposing the change. Oddly, they seemed to argue that renters don’t want more stability, and that this is just a cheap political tactic to win over the renter vote.
We can easily dispel their first point. Government figures show that over 80 per cent of private tenancies are initially set up as either six- to 12-month contracts. Shelter sees the human impact of this instability through our frontline services every single day. One in four families now privately rent – and we speak to countless worried parents who desperately want to put down roots, but instead live with the constant threat of eviction hanging over them. We’ve seen nine-year-olds who have lived in ten different houses. This is no way to live.
It is also why large majorities of private renters consistently tell pollsters they support longer tenancies – in fact our own research shows that seven in ten back permanent tenancies in England.
Now, it is worth dwelling on the criticism that’s been levied by the landlord group that this is purely a vote winning ploy. Even if that is true, it doesn’t stop it being the right thing to do – it is absolutely the right thing to do.
It does indeed, in some way, mark the rise of the electoral power of private renters. Ten years ago, anything that upset landlords would have struggled to get the cross-party agreement this issue now enjoys. A few key factors have shifted the balance.
Firstly, as both homeownership and social housing have become less accessible, we have many more private renters. The number of households who privately rent in England has doubled since 2001 to over four million.
Secondly, the demographics of renters are changing. Private renting is no longer dominated by students or young professionals looking for a short-term stepping stone. In 2016-17, 1.8 million families with children were renting compared with just over 550,000 in 2003-04. The number of older renters – over 65 – has also boomed, from 220,000 to more than 400,000 over the same time period. They shouldn’t have to put up with the uncertainty and lack of power which defines the experience of so many renters.
Finally, and perhaps most crucially, renters are showing up at the ballot box far more than before. There they have started to take their frustrations with high rents and insecurity out on politicians.
Despite the housing crisis being decades in the making and the failure of successive governments, it is the current one who is paying the price. The polling analyst Matt Singh examined data from the British Election Study and found that “almost the entirety of the swing from the Conservatives to Labour, was attributable to people who rent rather than own their home”, concluding it was a “rentquake”.
While housing is a top five or six issue for the general public, we know it is consistently in the top three for private renters.
All of this adds up to a big opportunity for political parties, but also a serious risk if they choose to ignore renters’ concerns. That’s why it is vital the government follows through on the weekend’s announcement, and even explores whether it can go further. Private renters in Scotland now enjoy permanent tenancies, so there is no reason why their English counterparts couldn’t one day enjoy the same.
Either way, the announcement is another mark of how our politics has started to catch up with the massive societal shifts of the last decade. Shelter will be campaigning hard to make sure politicians continue to listen, and we will have a growing group of powerful voters on our side.
Polly Neate is the chief executive of Shelter.