Martha Mackenzie
Martha Mackenzie

By Martha Mackenzie

Private renting, a turning point

Tomorrow Ed Miliband will announce that, if a Labour Government is elected in 2015, they will legislate to make long-term tenancies the legal default and ban letting agents from charging fees to tenants.

This commitment to stable, affordable renting is a major turning point for England’s 9 million renters and something that Shelter has been campaigning for since 2012.

It follows the Government’s promise last October to do what it can to end the practice of retaliatory eviction

Stability is key

One of the biggest issues that comes up when we talk to families renting privately is stability. They hate having to move their children frequently, sometimes as often as every year. Last year, I spoke to Rachel who had to move with her baby three times in 15 months.

This fear came through really strongly in Shelter’s partnership study ‘Sustain’. This study looked at what happened to homeless households who moved into the private rented sector. Sustain found that people prized stability – and yet the participants talked specifically about private renting being a source of insecurity. Fully aware of their lack of rights, participants felt that as long as they were renting privately, long-term decision making was out of their hands; they had no idea when they would have to move on again.

Frequent moving is destructive. It disrupts communities, families, and childhoods. Shelter’s survey of private renters found that 44 per cent of parents feel their children would have a better childhood if they had more stability in their home. A heart-breaking statistic.

Time to change

The dominance of the six month and one year assured shorthold tenancy (AST) has forced this instability on England’s renters.

In the late twentieth century the AST became the legal default. Britain chose to have one of the most deregulated, least controlled private rented sectors in the world. We are now seeing the impact of the almost complete lack of consumer protection for renters: rents are at record highs and renters are at the mercy of short-term contracts and poor conditions.  All of which comes at a time when the private rented sector is growing rapidly, thanks to our shortage of genuinely affordable homes.

That’s why in the long term we have to build the homes Britain’s families’ need.  But in the meantime it is vital that we reform private renting. The 1.3 million families that rent privately deserve a home they can feel proud of. They deserve to be part of their community, able to put down roots and able to send their children to a local school without being terrified they’ll have to move on.

Political opportunity

I was thinking about my own family’s experience. My mother grew up in a council prefab in Edinburgh. My grandparents moved in to the prefab when my grandpa returned from the Navy following the end of the Second World War. They lived in that house until they both passed away in the 1990s. Raising four daughters in a prefab came with many problems, and much hardship. Yet for my grandparents, the prefab meant everything. It was a home to call their own. It was part of a community. It was stable.

Prior to the prefab my grandparents and their eldest daughter, my Auntie Maureen, lived in one cramped, dilapidated room, which they rented privately.

They were promised a long-term home of their own, and the government of the day delivered. They never forgot.

Don’t underestimate the political opportunity that comes with improving the private rented sector. Many people increasingly accept that their long term future is in the sector- but they are not happy about it. One third (32 per cent) of renters believe that they’ll be renting for the rest of their lives. Yet 6 in 10 renters say their main reason for renting is because they have no other choice.

Nine million people rent privately and housing is now a regularly a top five voter concern. Any party that promises to both fix private renting’s shortcomings, and address our housing shortage – and keeps these promises in government – will not only improve lives and communities across England, they’ll also gain the support of a lot of grateful voters.

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