Shifts on private renting

Some lesser reported news this week is that the Communities Secretary Eric Pickles announced in his speech to the Conservative Party Conference that the government would be “supporting new family-friendly tenancies in the private rented sector”.

I was there in Manchester, and this felt like both a small step and yet a big moment for the policy environment of private renting. This is now my last week working for Shelter after three years in the policy team: a fitting moment to reflect on how things have changed in that time.

The detail is still emerging, but the department has set out that these will be longer term tenancies, with predictable rents, and break clauses to ensure that renters have flexibility to move if their circumstances change. They sound quite a bit like the Stable Rental Contract, a policy proposal Shelter made in September last year.

The Government’s family friendly tenancies look like they will be encouraged through model tenancies, with greater information for renters on the kind of tenancies that can be requested.

Even though longer tenancies can be offered under the current legal framework, in practice few landlords or letting agents do. As longer tenancies aren’t on offer, renters don’t know to ask for them. And yet, analysis by Jones Lang LaSalle shows that landlords and tenants would both benefit from them.

It’s all a bit chicken and egg, but the government putting some weight behind longer tenancies could start to make a difference to practice in the market.

My question is – will a tenants’ charter and some encouraging PR be enough to change practice in a market of 9 million renters and 1.5 million landlords, most of whom are letting out just one property? When I wrote the Stable Rental Contract report, my reading of behavioural economics, and the experience of every other country offering rental stability, suggested that a stronger ‘nudge’ would be needed to change behaviour in a market like this – and I set out some fiscal and legal mechanisms to do that.

But let’s not forget what significant progress this is for private renting. When I started at Shelter, the new Housing Minister Grant Shapps had just scrapped the previous government’s plans for a landlord register, the phrases ‘rogue landlord’ and ‘Generation Rent’ hadn’t entered common parlance, and few beyond Shelter were really talking about the millions of children growing up renting.

Since then Shelter has published reports on taking action against rogue landlords, we’ve seen prosecutions increase by 77%, local authorities get funds to tackle rogue landlords, and maximum fines for rogue landlords increased.

In addition to this week’s news, we’ve also seen the Mayor of London, the Leader of the Opposition, and senior politicians from all parties, talk about the importance of making private renting a more stable option for families.

It feels a million miles away from the debate in 2010.

Politicians making pledges is definitely encouraging, but it’s not quite the reassurance that England’s 9 million renters need, and over the coming years, Shelter and others will have much to do to turn these pledges into real change on the ground.

I hope to keep playing a part in it. I was recently appointed a Trustee of the National Private Tenants Organisation – a body representing and campaigning for renters. I hope to see many more renters energised and mobilised to make renting a better option, joining the likes of Shelter in securing long-needed change.