Yesterday, the government announced its intention to make the biggest change to private renting in a generation. The current system of institutionalised insecurity and the use of “no-fault” evictions is set to bite the dust. It will be replaced with “open-ended”, also known as indefinite, tenancies that require landlords to have a clear reason to evict tenants from their home.
It’s a change that tenants and tenants’ rights groups have been calling for, and is a major win for those who believe renting has become a source of deep instability right across our economy and society.
At Shelter we’ve been banging the drum of tenancy reform for many years. Every day, our services help people who have been let down by a brutal private rental market. The current situation is particularly intolerable for families with school-age children, whose lives can be turned upside down by the upheaval of forced moves at short notice. The damaging effects that repeated school and home moves can have on childhood development are well documented.
And it’s no better for those renting into their old-age, either – pensioners who, for no reason whatsoever, can be asked to leave their home with just eight weeks’ notice. Imagine being 75 and being given two months to get out of your home and find another one that’s near to family or has the adaptations you rely on in old age.
Unsurprisingly, this will be an incredibly popular policy among private renters. In Shelter’s latest survey of private renters, 84 per cent said they would like to be able to stay in their home for as long as they choose to. And three-quarters report that having a longer term or indefinite tenancy would make it easier for them to plan ahead in their lives.
Where did such a massive reform come from? With 11 million people in England now renting privately, there can be no doubt the move is smart politics by this government. It reflects how central the votes of those renters – young, old and the many families in between – are becoming to the outcome of elections.
Analysis from the 2017 general election demonstrated that private renters are a growing political force and may have been instrumental in delivering a hung parliament for Theresa May. Data from Ipsos Mori suggested a decisive swing towards Labour amongst private renters in key marginal seats, and private renters as a group saw one of the biggest swings against the Conservatives.
This importance of “vote rent” was reinforced by polling conducted for Shelter by Matt Singh at Number Cruncher Politics in 2018. This showed the government to be an astonishing 22 points behind with private renters in marginal seats – demonstrating a significant shift from the 2010 and 2015 elections, when renters were fairly evenly split between the major parties.
The so-called “rentquake” is not just about Hackney: it’s about places like Hastings and Mansfield, too. And it’s not just a battleground for younger voters, either. The instability of private renting is a doorstep issue for one in four families, and by 2040, a third of all over 65-year-olds will be in the same boat too.
Even so, this is a breathtaking reform from a government, which has to date been cautious in its response to the country’s unfolding housing emergency.
Communities Secretary James Brokenshire, who leads the department responsible for housing, has shown himself to be a reformer in the traditions of “One Nation” Conservative leaders like Macmillan and Disraeli. To those who doubted his influence, he has secured a government commitment to a change that has eluded all previous secretaries of state, both Labour and Conservative.
This reform is not anti-market. In fact, it replicates many of the features of countries with much larger rental markets like Germany. It’s designed to make the market work for its consumers, rather than against them.
It’s a change which is pro-family, pro-community, and will transform the position of a growing army of older renters facing retirement in privately rented housing. With both parties increasingly competing for the renter’s vote, it demonstrates a willingness from the government to try and reach out to groups who both parties will need to secure if they are to win future elections. It lays down a marker to Labour – which has also been calling for this reform in recent months – that the party will not have housing policy to themselves.
If a consensus now emerges on this reform to private renting, both parties will need to turn their attention to the battleground now emerging in relation to social housing, too. Shelter’s cross-party, independent commission established the benchmark against which parties must now be judged: three million new social homes over the next 20 years, and the associated investment needed to pull it off.
The opening shots have now been fired in the great political battle for the country’s renters. At Shelter, we hope and believe the outcome can be a new political consensus on a fairer and more decent housing system, and the basic right to a safe home for all.
Greg Beales is campaigns director at Shelter.