Do Miliband’s plans for Generation Rent go far enough?

The shortcomings of such light-touch reforms are plain, writes Rob Edwards.

The shortcomings of such light-touch reforms are plain to see, writes Rob Edwards

Forty-five pages of privacy invading paperwork – a bureaucratic crevice to find oneself lodged when wages won’t keep pace with the spiralling cost of rent.

The HCTB1 housing benefit form is a bulwark against destitution to which growing numbers of working people in the UK have resorted since the recession began, as outgoings on the necessities of life have strode mercilessly ahead of stagnant incomes.

Recent figures from housing charity Shelter demonstrate just how precarious the situation is for British families, with a third revealing they would be unable to make their next rent or mortgage payment if they were to lose their job this month.

A new study by Zoopla shows the cost of renting a two-bedroom flat has now topped £1,000 in all but two London boroughs. Rent rises in the past year alone mean that average rents on two-bedroom flats in a quarter of London’s boroughs now top £2,000 a month.

The private sector is failing to build affordable homes with numbers still well below pre-crash levels. At the same time, money the state could otherwise spend on building and maintenance is poured generously into the pockets of renegade landlords with a licence to charge the odds on frequently sub-standard housing.

It is somewhat surprising, then, that despite private sector rents routinely devouring more than half of Londoner’s incomes, until Labour’s announcement last week on second generation rent controls there were so few political voices lobbying for a renewed rent control regime.

City Hall has shed its share of crocodile tears, of course. London Mayor Boris Johnson recently approved two schemes in north London, with 30 per cent of the flats designated as ‘affordable’. On these terms, tenants would pay 80 per cent of the rent on the private market – in reality still over £22,000 a year.

There are in fact two ways of using the law to control private rent levels. The first being is old-style rent cap, originally introduced in the UK in 1915 as an emergency wartime measure to deal with housing shortages in the absence of any building workforce, and in response to the Glasgow Rent Strikes.

A rent cap involves setting overall maximum rent levels, giving tenants indefinite contracts and limiting the increases that can be charged once they are in a contract.

As in Germany, France and Spain, another means of holding down rents is to pin them to the market at the outset, as has been suggested by Ed Milibdan. Tenants in this instance have longer-term contracts and their rent can only be increased by an inflationary index, such as RPI or CPI.

Either option, no doubt, would sit well with Britain’s struggling tenants, but the reaction of private landlords, constrained by such regulations, may create issues down the line.

Landlords may attempt to maintain their profit margins by cutting down on repairs, leading to a rash of squalid conditions. Others may subdivide their properties further, with all the degenerative hallmarks of overcrowding on tenants’ quality of life.

Tenants could even find themselves with fewer options if caps force landlords with hefty mortgage repayments to sell up.

The shortcomings of such light-touch reforms are plain. More than plastering up the cracks with gimmicks like Affordable Housing Schemes, we need genuine bricks and mortar alternatives.

Councils should launch registers of private landlords and council run lettings agencies, ensuring the quality and safety of private accommodation and capping rents at council rent levels.

Today’s councils need to build many thousands of new houses as a matter of urgency to give new hope to tenants and put a brake on private rents. Moreover, we must defend what precious council housing we have left.

These progressive demands should be matched with the scrapping of the socially corrosive bedroom tax and with the introduction of a living wage that marches in step with the cost of living. In the absence of a stable and sustainable housing policy, nothing short of this will do.

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