The Rent Trap: a swing seat issue

We have just published Shelter’s latest analysis on rent levels and increases in England, which shows that rents rose by an average of almost £300 (or 2.8%) from 2011 to 2012, at a time when wages didn’t rise at all.

What strikes me when looking at the numbers is how far-reaching the problem is – and how deserving it is of a more prominent place in our national political conversation.

There are the economic implications. At a time of stagnant wages, rising rents sap disposable income and undermine consumer demand.

As interesting for politicians, though, is that rising rents are increasingly a roadblock to home ownership, preventing people from saving for a home of their own. 73% of renters told us that after paying rising rents and other essentials, they’re now only able to put aside £50 or less a month.

A whole generation of families and young people risk being trapped in a lifetime of unstable renting as a result. Some 8.5 million people now rent. Dealing with their poor experience and helping them achieve their aspirations should be an increasing concern for political parties focused on winning the 2015 election.

For instance, in the political battleground of Harlow, renters saw rents rise by £221 in a year. Sutton & Cheam, which the Conservatives aim to take back from the Lib Dems, saw a 7.8% rise (£784 a year). Rents in Hampstead & Kilburn, a key three-way marginal, went up by 5.5% (£815).

Take the 18 English seats released so far on the Conservative’s 40/40 list: nine saw rent increases above the national average, including Labour-held Walsall North (4.8%; £285), Harrow West (5.7%; £753) and Newcastle-under-Lyme (3.8%; £233).

You see a similar pattern in key Labour battlegrounds. Voters in six of their top 18 target seats in England suffered rent increases above or in line with the national average. This includes Thurrock (3.5%; £291), Broxtowe (4.2%; £273) and Wolverhampton SW (5.2%; £303).

Meanwhile, six of the top ten marginal seats in England saw rent increases above the national average, as this table shows:

table showing top 10 marginal seats in England

Any way you look at it, constituents in the kinds of seats which will decide the next election are being badly squeezed by rising rents, and seeing their aspirations for an affordable home of their own frustrated.

Renters are an increasingly significant part of the electorate in these contests. As Pete Jefferys noted recently, private renting is growing fast in key battlegrounds.

At the last election, private renters were split far more evenly across the three main parties than home owners or those in social housing. Their tenure alone may not determine their vote, but it is fair assumption that the bill that demands the largest percentage of their take home pay will weigh heavily on their minds.

The loyalty of this rapidly growing group of swing voters, then, is certainly up for grabs.

So far, though, all three parties have been fairly slow to seize this opportunity.

Politicians are often derided for using ill-defined terms to characterise swing voters. But the reality is, when Ed Miliband talks about the ‘squeezed middle’, or David Cameron targets ‘strivers’, they are talking about that young family, working hard and struggling to save for a home of their own; they are talking about private renters. The question is – do they know it?