The Immigration Bill does little to solve the real housing issues

This week the government launched a consultation into their proposal to require private landlords to check the immigration status of their tenants.

Jenny Pennington is  a Researcher at IPPR

This week the government launched a consultation into their proposal to require private landlords to check the immigration status of their tenants.

Others have pointed out that the plan is likely to be unworkable (especially in the absence of a register of private landlords) and could have unintended consequences (including discrimination against legal migrants and minorities).

These are both valid criticisms, but the real flaw is what the proposals don’t achieve. The government’s plans are a missed opportunity to tackle the real challenges for housing in the UK.

Migration does put pressure on housing in some areas, particularly within the private rented sector, and there is a need for government action here. Immigration is estimated to be responsible for around 40 per cent of new housing demand, temporary migration can unsettle communities through high ‘population churn’.

Unscrupulous landlords can exploit new arrivals with poor quality, overpriced and sometimes dangerous living conditions (sometimes referred to as ‘beds in sheds’). 75 per cent of recently-arrived migrants live in the private rented sector. But to date the government have been resistant to regulating this growing and often dysfunctional area. This week’s proposals mark the first attempt.

The proposal has been presented as an attempt to crack down on ‘beds in sheds’, but is likely to be ineffective at achieving this aim. Landlords who are renting out sub-standard accommodation are already flouting a numbers of regulations. It is the lack of enforcement of the laws we have, not a need for new ones, that is allowing these dangerous practices to continue.

Reduced local authority budgets that mean less funding available for enforcement is the real pressure point here.

The proposal is also unlikely to be successful in its other aim, reducing irregular migration, for similar reasons. Last week a report by the chief inspector of the UKBA revealed that the department failed to follow up on thousands of leads on the whereabouts of irregular immigrants. Without additional resources these new provisions will do little to boost the government’s enforcement capacity.

Identifying and removing migrants who have no right to be in the UK is a legitimate aim; however it isn’t a solution to the housing crisis. Estimates put the numbers of irregular migrants in the UK at around 615,000 (although there is considerable uncertainty about the true figure, and recent processes may have substantially reduced numbers).

We know that they often live in overcrowded accommodation – so that their use of housing is far lower than the average of 2.3 people per home. Government reviews have suggested that UK needs to build 290,500 homes a year just to keep pace with demand.

Therefore, even if all undocumented migrants were to be identified and removed from the UK (something that is probably impossible and likely to cost around £10.5 billion pounds) this would only release enough housing to ease demand for at most one year. Housing undersupply dates back long before net migration reached today’s levels, and needs different policy solutions.

In addition, the proposals do little to address the real pressures on housing related to immigration. Temporary migration in particular can lead to high concentrations of overcrowded housing with rapid tenant turnover.

For example in Thetford in Norfolk, the number of houses like this rose from 40 to 400 over four years in response to migration. This can limit neighbourly interaction and lead to annoyances (e.g. if many households are unfamiliar with local rubbish disposal rules).

However, as the vast majority of the migrants living in these homes are in the UK legally, these proposals will leave these issues untouched. Local authorities need real regulatory powers to control the numbers of short term private rented lets available in their area.

Action on these issues would do far more to resolve the real problems of immigration and housing.

The government have shown with these proposals that they are not against introducing regulation to tame the private rented sector. But for political reasons they have chosen to focus on irregular migration rather than addressing any of the more substantial issues in the private rented sector (including some linked to migration).

What we need now are more workable solutions that address the real problems experienced by local communities, and fewer political gimmicks.

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