London: the first to wake up to private renting?

The growth of the private rented sector and the changing demographics of people who rent from a private landlord are widely considered to be the most significant changes in the housing market in recent decades.

Almost every time I look at the national picture through the government’s English Housing Survey I find another angle that sheds further light on the growth of the sector. Most recently I realised that there were 400,000 additional households with children in the private in the last three years – a 63% increase in that time, and accounting for the majority of the sector’s growth.

National policy-makers are only beginning to clock this one – it’s possible that many still hold the idea that private renting is mainly the territory of students and whimsical young professionals, perhaps based on their own distant experiences. Little action to improve conditions or tenants’ stability in the sector by a succession of governments indicates a lack of concern or priority.

So I applaud the London Assembly’s Planning and Housing Committee’s report on London’s private rented sector. The private rented sector in some London boroughs is more than double the national average – so you would hope that London Assembly Members would be more switched on to the needs of renters.

But it’s quite significant that this cross-party group of politicians were so convinced by the evidence presented to them that they were calling for tax incentives for landlords offering longer tenancies, such as a minimum five year tenancy for homeless households placed in private rented accommodation. It looks like London politicians see the value in moving to a more European model of private renting, recognising that the high cost of buying a home and long waiting lists for social housing mean private renting is the only realistic option for millions of Londoners.

I’m hoping that their national colleagues take note of the committee’s recommendations. Frontbenchers and advisers in Westminster haven’t been nearly as clear in setting out how they would meet the needs of the changing population of private renters. As the private rented sector is set to continue growing, Westminster would do well to look down the river to City Hall for some ideas on how to tackle the country’s next big housing policy problem.