It’s worth pausing for a moment on the promise Theresa May made in her first speech as prime minister. It’s a short speech in which she spoke about how tough it is for many families. So far, so ordinary. But it was the promise she made to those struggling families that was different. The government she leads, she said, “will do everything we can to give you more control over your lives.”
It was not a promise to make people’s lives generally better or even a promise to make us a bit richer, but to give people more control.
As someone who has been working on private renting policy for a couple of years – and as a private renter for the last decade – this message of empowering the powerless resonates with me enormously.
More and more, those struggling families are private renters, not social tenants or home owners. Half of all kids in middle income families, according to new research by the Institute of Fiscal Studies, are now growing up in a private rented home. The trend is unlikely to reverse any time soon.
However, it is next to impossible to feel fully in control of your life as a private tenant on a typical six, twelve month or rolling month-to-month contract. The future of your home and whether you’ll be able to carry on living there remains firmly in someone else’s hands: your landlord’s. Ultimately, they have near total power to ask you to leave when your fixed-term comes to an end.
As such, the answers to some pretty important life questions feel like they’re dictated by circumstances out of your hands. Big decisions, like having kids, are kicked down the road until you have found somewhere more permanent.
Even little things like registering with the local dentist or GP, getting to know the neighbours, joining that local choir, replacing the curtains, registering to vote, etc, are influenced by the same subtext.
Because why would you expect a private tenant to even want to have kids if they didn’t think they could provide them with a stable home? Why say hello to the new neighbours if you’ve said goodbye to so many others? Why register to vote if you don’t know if you’ll be living in your current home by the time of the next election? Why would you think a tenant would try their level best to look after their place if they think of it more like a temporary fix than a permanent home?
All of this has been recognised as a pretty big problem for a pretty long time, of course.
But policy solutions have focused on how to shift people out of the private rented sector entirely: to help them get control of their lives by moving them into home ownership. The problem is that it hasn’t worked. The number of families living in a private rented home has inexorably continued to swell, dwarfing the number that have gained control through buying.
At the same time, we haven’t spent a whole lot of time talking about the most obvious and quickest solution: giving tenants more control by transforming private renting itself.
It may be said that this is because private tenants want to own, so renting reform just won’t meet their aspirations.
Clearly, most private tenants do want to own their own home. But as private renter Suzie told me in our recent podcast, she doesn’t think she will be able to buy for a long time. In the meantime she wants her private home to be the sort of place she could imagine raising a family, which means having more control over it.
These desires do not compete – nor would private renting reform contradict efforts to help people buy.
It may be said that we haven’t focussed on reforming renting because it’s impossible or a risk to the market.
Reform is possible; in fact, renters having more control is the norm. England is the outlier.
Practically every other country in North and West Europe has renting laws that give private renters stronger powers to stay in their property for the long-term. These systems are tried and tested. Many have been in place for decades, like Germany’s where you can stay in your rented home indefinitely. Some, like Ireland’s where you can stay for a minimum of four years, were introduced only a few years ago. So we have many examples to follow – or steal wholesale.
It may be said that we haven’t reformed renting because it won’t solve every problem with housing in England.
Clearly, putting more control in the hands of private renters won’t solve every problem. In particular, it won’t do that much to tackle England’s affordability crisis. That’s why we also to work on those long-term solutions by building many more homes of all types. And it’s also why we need to accept that we’re going to have to pay a hefty price tag while we work on the long-term solution, by reversing the freeze on Local Housing Allowance.
However, the Prime Minister’s promise to the nation reflects a genuine sense of powerlessness felt by millions of private renters, which is rooted in our renting laws. Reforming the law is the key to tackling this problem.
As such, the new government has a great opportunity to make good on its promise and give renters control over their lives by giving them control over their homes.