Is The Way We Rent In The UK About To Change Forever?
The Debrief: This country's growing population of renters are finally being listened to
Since Theresa May became prime minister the comparisons with our only other female leader have abounded. Not just because they share the same initials, but because they’re both women the media hasn’t been able to resist aligning May with Margaret Thatcher. When she stands firm on Brexit they even quote the original MT, reusing old lines such as ‘the lady’s not for turning.’
All of this takes place despite the fact that Theresa May is, in fact, politically at least, very different to her only other female predecessor. Margaret Thatcher supported Europe, she advocated joining the single market. If you need more poetry how about this: Theresa May gave her speech in which she announced that Britain would be leaving the single market as part of Brexit at Lancaster House, the very same location that Thatcher gave a speech in support of joining it in 1988.
The dissimilarities don’t stop there. Tomorrow the government will release their much anticipated housing white paper (a long policy document in which the government sets out their plans for the not so distant future) and it could perhaps signal the biggest break with and shift from Thatcherite politics yet.
Tomorrow, Theresa May’s government will publish a policy document in which they accept that this countries current housing system, specifically the private rental market, is ‘broken’. It’s expected that the white paper will focus on delivering more affordable rented accommodation and secure tenancies (hallelujah) and propose tougher action against rogue landlords (finally), putting the 4.3 million plus people currently residing in the private rental sector because they cannot afford to get on the property ladder due to astronomic housing prices at the very top of the agenda.
Speaking to the Observer a senior Whitehall source said: ‘we want to help renters get more choice, a better deal and more secure tenancies.’ This new emphasis on renters’ rights is a radical move away from the share to buy and help to buy schemes of Cameron’s government. It also follows on from the announcement in last year’s Autumn Statement that the government would ban letting agency fees for tenants after The Debrief’s Make Renting Fair campaign succeeded in forcing the pressing and long-overlooked issue onto the agenda.
Speaking on last week’s BBC Sunday Politics the Housing Minister Gavin Barwell MP said that the government is still committed to reversing the decline in home ownership but also wanted to be clear that they had ‘something to say’ to renters facing unaffordable housing costs. The white paper will ask councils to put more emphasis on rental schemes, especially in towns and cities, as well as making it easier for ‘build to rent’ developers to offer affordable properties.
‘Whether you're trying to buy or you're trying to rent, housing in this country has become less and less affordable because for 30 or 40 years governments have not built enough homes and this White Paper is fundamentally trying to do something about that’, Mr Barwell said.
Of course, neither the housing crisis nor the broken private rental market are new. If you're a milennial whose parents can't help you, you reluctantly made peace with the fact that you can't afford to buy a house and your ridiculous rent a while ago. They are both problems which have been allowed to fester for several decades, in part due to restrictive planning regulations, the sell-off of social housing, slow-paced house building and what it would not be hyperbole to term an unregulated Buy-to-Let boom; all of which saw house prices soar well beyond the reach of those on low and even average to decent incomes. Where the previous government adopted a ‘keep calm and carry on advocating home ownership because it’s totally aspirational even though it’s no longer realistic’ policy, under May the Department for Communities and Local Government seems to have finally woken up and smelled the coffee.
Think of it this way, George Osborne and David Cameron were sort of like Maggie T’s beloved, most favourite grandchildren. ‘We are all Thatcherites now’, said DC back in 2013 when she passed away, but there was never any doubt that he saw his work as carrying out her legacy. One of her central policies was that Britain should become a nation of homeowners, not matter what. That has, in recent years, been pursued at all costs (see help to buy which actually inflated the market further and has since been scrapped by May’s government) while the growing number of renters have been wilfully ignored.
Today, far from being a nation of home owners we are fast becoming a nation of renters. Since the year 2000, the number of people living in private rented accommodation has doubled but, until recently, that was something only think tanks and campaign groups were prepared to address, with this number set to rise. A report, conducted by economists at accountancy firm PwC in 2015, predicted that by 2025, a quarter of all households will be renting privately and that the biggest increase will be seen among those aged between 20 and 39, where ‘a clear majority’ will be private tenants within the next decade. Indeed, the average couple living in privately rented accommodation now spend roughly half of their salary to their landlord every month, before they’ve even left the house or had an opportunity to save.
What’s frustrating is that Britain’s housing crisis could have been prevented and, after all, prevention is better than cure but, there’s no doubt that it’s good news that something is finally being done.
Lib Dem peer, Baroness Olly Grender, whose Renters’ Rights Bill has been progressing through the House of Lords told The Debrief:
‘At last we’re seeing the spotlight turn to renters, which is long overdue. People who let out homes need to know it’s more than just an investment opportunity, it’s people’s lives – and they deserve stability and decent standards. There are responsible landlords out there, but there are still too many horror stories.’
‘But it’s easy for ministers to say the right thing, and another matter to actually take the radical steps that will make a difference. We are yet to see if they will do things like introduce licencing for landlords to raise standards and build more genuinely affordable homes that can be let out below the market rent.’
Kate Webb, Head of Policy at Shelter, welcomed the news, saying 'ordinary families up and down the country are struggling to keep their heads above water with sky-high rents and short-term, unstable contracts which can make it nearly impossible to save and plan ahead. It’s vital the government look to fix this by introducing long-term contracts of 5 years or more so people can plan their lives and feel safe. If the government really is serious about fixing this problem at its source, then they quite simply need to build more homes. We hope they grab these opportunities with both hands in the forthcoming housing White Paper - millions of renters up and down the country are counting on them.'
As with all legislation the devil is in the detail. It remains to be seen whether this government will actually be able to deliver genuinely ‘affordable’ homes for rent, reign in rogue landlords and build new homes at the rate we need them.
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