Far too many Britons are at the mercy of exploitative private landlords. I have a five-point plan to fix that | Stephen Cowan

Sarah faces daily torment. An impending rent rise means she can no longer afford to live in the home she shares with her two children. She has to downsize. That means potentially having to split up her boys. Her youngest is doing his A-levels. Her oldest, just turned 18, is struggling with mental health issues. It is an unenviable problem.

“Will I have to say that one son lives elsewhere and one lives with me,” asks Sarah (not her real name). “At best I can try to protect them and say it’s all going to be OK. But I have to say it to myself as well. But we’ve got no stability and could be thrown out in two months’ time.”

Sarah’s plight is a story of modern Britain. Where once we were a nation of homeowners and those who rented from their local council, we now live in a land where a staggering 11 million people live in privately rented homes.

The UK, despite Margaret Thatcher’s vision, now has some of the lowest rates of home ownership in Europe. And absolute numbers of social housing have crashed – with 1.4m fewer households living in social housing in England now than in 1980.

None of this has been helped by the government’s housing policies. Between 2010 and 2020, England had the lowest number of new homes built since the end of the second world war.

All this has meant that, for millions of people, the great British dream of a secure home of your own has been shattered. With that, the private rented sector (PRS) stepped up to become the second largest form of housing tenure in the UK.

Since 1980, the numbers have doubled. Of the 5m properties, 21% are estimated to be below standards. Since 2010, the cost of renting has gone up by 44.5%, according to the Halifax. During this period, wages have risen by 30.4% and inflation has risen by 24%.

No-fault evictions are going through the roof. Last year, there was an 49% rise over the previous year, with 9,457 households in England removed from their homes for no fault of their own. That is the highest level in seven years. More than 26,000 households have lost their homes since the government first announced it would ban section 21 notice evictions almost five years ago.

There are many good, highly professional landlords running high-quality business operations, and there are exceptionally compassionate landlords who go above and beyond to support their tenants. But there are others, too. The lower end of the sector is blighted by landlords who range from those who are “wilfully ignorant” to those involved in “organised crime”.

Too much of the private housing market is not functioning properly. If some of these operations were healthcare or food businesses they would be closed down. Too many families are facing daily anguish and anxiety trying to deal with the basic right to have a decent roof over their heads.

These are the inescapable conclusions of the independent private rented sector commission, which has just carried out a 17-month long independent review at the request of Labour.

Not surprisingly, we affirm from the outset that fixing the dysfunctional housing sector is a good priority for Labour’s government-in-waiting. We believe Labour’s plans to restore housebuilding targets and to reform the planning system and the compulsory purchase compensation code are vital if we are to reshuffle the deck so that more people have the opportunity to live in either owned or socially provided housing.

We have set out five key issues that we believe could help support a fit-for-purpose housing system.

Currently, there is no precise means of measuring the safety or quality of homes across the private rented sector. So, acting upon the principle of “If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it”, we’re calling for the introduction of a comprehensive, annually updated self-assessment on a new national landlords’ register. This would require landlords to detail compliance with health and safety laws and a new decent homes standard.

Renters have a right to know that their home will be safe and of good standard. And good landlords have a right to compete in a market where everyone plays by the same rules. The register will enable those things to happen efficiently and quickly.

We also call for the banning of no-fault evictions, and for actions to curtail the drift from long-term lets to short-term and holiday lets, such as Airbnb.

Like the Labour party, our expert-led commission comes out strongly against hard rent controls, which it concludes are damaging to the PRS. Instead, we call for the introduction of a straightforward rent stabilisation measure already practised by some businesses in the PRS. That would manage in-tenancy rent increases – not a cap on rents, but a cap on rent increases. Crucially, it would close any potential loophole of rent-hike evictions.

None of these proposals are radical. Much of Europe already offers renters these rights as a minimum. These pragmatic measures will enable government to nudge all parts of the private rented sector to uphold standards of professionalism in line with other consumer-based businesses. And they will give renters the stability they need to plan their lives. Britain’s renters deserve better. These measures would make that a reality.

The Guardian

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