20 May 2014

Earlier this month Ed Miliband, the Labour party leader, indicated how Labour would reform the private rented sector of housing. There have been jeremiads of course.

The last Labour government had a lousy record on housing. Its affordable housing figures are shameful and indefensible. The new positive approach may be a Damascus moment and deep repentance for the past; it may be shaped by the proximity of a general election; whichever, let us rejoice that eyes and perhaps hearts have been opened.

The private rented sector matters. There are now more households in private rented housing than social rented housing. In Cornwall the 2011 census showed there are 77 000 people living in privately rented houses and in the post Hidden housing need in Cornwall (27 October 2013) I looked at some of the problems with disrepair. The report The condition of private sector housing stock in the south west region (March 2009) from the now abolished South West Regional Assembly showed that 55 percent of private sector housing in Cornwall was ‘non-decent’.

Labour is promising two major changes: longer tenancies and predictable rents during those.

Length of tenancies
At present private sector tenancies are largely for six months and at the end of that any new tenancy can carry a large rent rise. Yes, landlords should get a reasonable return on their money, but tenants should be protected from exploitative rises which very often taxpayers meet through higher housing benefit.

Most landlords are honorable but there are enough accounts of requests for repairs and complaints about damp leading to a refusal by some landlords to renew a tenancy for this to be a cause for action.

The present default six-month tenancy may involve charges for renewal from letting agents. The shortness does not help bring stability and security to families; children especially need a deal of continuity in their lives and a carousel of moving house and school is undesirable. The issue of stable housing, security, and continuity in a community arose with the bedroom tax in social housing too. The Tories and Libdems do not seem to understand these desiderata. They seem to see only houses as assets not homes.

See number 33 in this post on fees charged by letting agents and note how the Cornwall Libdems voted.

Labour is advocating limited rent control. Three-year tenants will experience limited rent rises, predictable rents not exploitative ones.

A concern is that any control of rent income will put off landlords and thus reduce the number of houses for rent and end repairs and maintenance. This is a misreading of what Labour is proposing, a modest control to serve both tenants and landlords. Since much rent is paid through housing benefit we all have an interest in managing rises.
We can have a balanced private sector with indecent housing brought up to standard, and with rents and tenancies that are just to tenants and landlords and recognise society’s interests.

And the rest
Of course the question about rents and tenancies in the private sector are only part of the issue of housing. At bottom there are not enough houses, including social housing for rent and purchase, for people – we are running at a national shortfall of around 140 000 a year. We must build more and the lack of uncontroversial sites is a challenge to everyone. It is also a test of how serious people take housing. Wailing about unfair rents and opposing a realistic program for affordable houses, as Mebyon Kernow does, is not a coherent housing policy.