Labour’s Britain: Regulating private rents

Teresa Pearce MP

A lot is written about the housing crisis, but it’s not just a crisis for those who are homeless or those who are living in overcrowded slums. It’s a crisis for all of us. Decent homes make a decent society and, without a stable home, education and health are affected and family cohesion shattered.

The housing crisis is not just about bricks and mortar. It’s about people and their life chances.

It’s about the children who have been in three schools before they are even 10, and the teachers who are struggling to deal with the effects of classroom churn every month.

It’s about the children who grow up unable to build the roots and childhood friendships that are vital to self-esteem.

It’s about the local GPs who cannot build patient relationships because patients by their 1000s move on and off the register each year as they get shifted from one private rented home to another.

It’s about the isolation of the elderly couples who have spent their whole married lives in a street that now has numerous “houses of multiple occupancy” in it and they no longer know their neighbours.

It’s about the 3.3 million adults under 34 who were living with parents in 2013, and it’s about the parents of those adults who worry that their children will never have a home of their own.

And then there are all the families struggling to meet next month’s mortgage payments. Those who are living in fear of losing a job or being sick. Research commissioned recently by Shelter clearly shows what a knife edge many of these hard working families are living on: one in three parents cutting back on food to pay for their home; over a million working parents saying they had put off buying their children new shoes; and one in ten saying they had to delay buying their children a new school uniform in the last year so that they could pay their rent or mortgage.

Losing your job shouldn’t mean losing your home, but for many families it does.

In 1951 a party manifesto read: “Housing is the first of the social services. It is also one of the keys to increased productivity. Work, family life, health and education are all undermined by overcrowded homes”

That was Harold Macmillan’s Conservative manifesto.

The statement was true then and it’s true now. Sadly the solution in 1951 and onwards was quantity not quality, and some of the worst sink estates and tower-block monstrosities were built during that time. We need homes not just housing.

Four decades ago a woman I know was a young mum with a baby girl and she lived in a 3 room building. It was a slum. It was damp and had fungus on the walls. It had no hot water, no bathroom and an outside chemical toilet.

The local council, after intervention by her GP, rehoused them in a small council flat, and that was the tipping point that changed their lives. With a safe, stable home they could build a life and they did. Both the Mum and the daughter are now successful women and 40 per cent tax payers. It was a small investment that society made in them and they have repaid it through their taxes, hoping that others will be offered the same opportunities to flourish.

But for people in the same position today there is no such ladder for them. The best they are likely to get is insecure temporary housing or short term private rented.

A short term private rent is not a home. It’s just a stop gap. I am a London MP and the private rented sector in London, for instance, has grown by 75 per cent in 10 years. However, rented accommodation is not offering people the opportunity to create secure homes.

The private rented sector is notoriously unstable. Renters typically have short contracts of 6 to 12 months. Rent increases are unpredictable. The life of the private renter is typically unstable, insecure, and blighted by anxiety.

I regularly meet families who tell me that they are living in sub-standard properties. They tell me they are living in damp, overcrowded conditions. They tell me their accommodation is making their children ill. They tell me that, for all this, they struggle to pay extortionate rent. They tell me that they fear eviction. They tell me that they are desperate. And they are. We are facing the biggest housing crisis in a generation.

It is now commonly accepted that we need to build more homes, but we also need to regulate the private rented sector.

Some private landlords have, for too long, been able to take the money without accepting the responsibility whilst the rest of us pick up the costs of unstable communities, marriage breakdowns, and children with no secure home life. Given the private rented sector is likely to keep expanding we need to create a reputable industry that protects the vulnerable and ensures renters are not at the mercy of some unscrupulous landlords.

Stable homes make stable communities. Surely that is in the interests of society as a whole.


  1. Jon

    AND I am sure we all agree. BUT how is regulation going to be achieved?

    There is one simple solution that has never been tried. The most obvious way to regulate a financially governed sector is through (be damned I’ll use the dirty word) MONEY.

    Housing benefit should be paid as a part of other benefits. This should be calculated on geographical area and family size, NOT based on rent paid.

    This would create a benefit for those who were able to negotiate a lower rent and a market economy would drive rents down. ‘Roof over head’ benefits would also be paid to those in sub-standard (or no) accomodation allowing deposits to be saved.

    I hasten to add that this would be phased in so that assessed amounts would only become payable when there was a change of address avoiding the ‘bedroom tax’ debacle.

    Transition of payment from landlord to tennant was supposed to empower tennants. It didn’t. Giving a financial incentive does.

    Of course we would have to show enough respect to the ‘underclass’ to follow such an enablement. On the other hand I wonder how many days (maybe hours) the average Political could last in an underclass area?

  2. Christine Clifford

    Sink estates and high rises were not that to begin with. Many were well designed and made and people loved them. Only neglect by people who hated council housing led to decay and the dumping of individuals and families with complex and multiple problems in numbers bound to cause disruption creating so called sink estates.
    I live on a London estate. I love it but ban right to buy so no more private lets appear here. My neighbours to my immediate right are a multiple occupancy flat meant for a family. It’s now six bedsits and flouting all fire and other safety.

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