Private renting used to be a stepping stone – a short-term place to stay before moving on, usually to home ownership, often to a social home. But with the number of private renters now reaching 9 million in England, media coverage has in recent years focused in on the problems of insecure, expensive, and poor quality private rented homes for Generation Rent, unable to get a long-term home of their own.
So the investigation of the cross-party Communities and Local Government (CLG) Select Committee into private renting is welcome. Their report, published yesterday, makes a number of sensible and uncontroversial recommendations about improving renting, and fixing what it calls an “immature market”. At Shelter we would put it more strongly –the private renting market is broken. Renters have little ability to shop around for better deals, little redress when their landlord acts illegally or fails to maintain a property, and no choice but to accept end of year rent hikes. We hope the government will waste no time in agreeing to implement the report’s recommendations in full.
We’re particularly pleased to see the committee recognise that change is urgent for the 1.3 million families with children who rent their homes privately. Their report endorses longer-term, more stable tenancies with rent rises linked to a maximum of inflation. Shelter called for this when we proposed the Stable Rental Contract, and our supporters will be writing to Eric Pickles to ask him to support it.
Although the report is welcome, in many ways, the CLG select committee has been cautious where we would have liked them to have been more bold. Why, for example, call only for transparency of letting agency fees to renters, something that is unlikely to reduce them significantly, when England could follow Scotland’s lead and just ban such blatant double-charging outright?
Indeed in general, there seems to be insufficient willingness on the part of many of our political leaders to consider intervening to guarantee a higher standard of living for England’s 9 million renters. (Perhaps 1 in 3 MPs being buy-to-let landlords rather slows the pace of change?)
The government’s initial response to the select committee report echoes this, and many of the same tired lines of recent months: platitudes about seeking a ‘bigger’ private rented sector and evidence-free assumptions that any regulation would push up rents. They suggest that giving renters a right to complain about letting agency service and spending £1 billion on an already failing Build-to-Rent scheme is sufficient – a conclusion that is baffling given the weight of evidence about the failings of private renting so amply demonstrated to the committee.
We hope that we are pleasantly surprised by the full response from CLG ministers to the select committee report, which we will see in the autumn. After all, the relentless expansion of private renting is creating a whole swath of voters – many of whom are swing voters in swing seats – whose day-to-day concerns are not being addressed by a government who will be seeking their votes in 2015. The long summer break might give ministers the chance to formulate a real strategy to help renters – and maybe even win their votes.