Ed Miliband has laid out plans to protect tenants from "rogue landlords". In a keynote speech on the future of his party, Labour's leader revived calls for a national register of landlords – and greater powers for councils to bar the worst. He said the growing number of families in rented accommodation needed greater security of tenancy if they were to establish stable roots in their communities.
Mr Miliband launched his offensive on the potential exploitation of tenants after it was confirmed that 3.6 million households, including a million with children, are now renting privately – more than in the social rented sector for the first time in almost 50 years.
But landlords last night rejected the calls for more regulation, insisting that they were already governed by more than 100 laws, many of which were not being fully enforced by local councils.
"We cannot have two nations divided between those who own their own homes and those who rent," Mr Miliband told the Fabian Society. "Most people who rent have responsible landlords and rental agencies. But there are too many rogue landlords and agencies, either providing accommodation which is unfit or ripping off their tenants.
"And too many families face the doubt of a two-month notice period before being evicted. Imagine being a parent with kids settled in a local school, and your family settled in your home for two, three, four years, facing that sort of uncertainty." Landlords insist that the cost of a national register, estimated by Labour at £300m, would amount to a tax on both tenants and landlords "at just the moment we need more rented housing". The plan for a register, originally proposed by the last Labour government, was abandoned by the coalition, which said it did not want to impose "burdensome red tape and bureaucracy".
Alan Ward, of the Residential Landlords Association, said yesterday that many tenants did not want to be tied to longer rental agreements. He said: "It is a two-part contract and if they sign for a longer period they will also be committed to stay for that length of time. There are over a hundred laws controlling the private rented sector, but they are not being properly enforced. We do not want more regulations, we want councils to enforce the ones they have, in order to catch the minority of landlords who are criminal."
Mr Miliband's pledge to protect private tenants is the latest phase of a strategy to set his leadership apart from New Labour, which he conceded was "too timid in enforcing rights and responsibilities, especially at the top, and it was too sanguine about the consequences of the rampant free markets. By the time we left office, too many people didn't feel as if the Labour Party was open to their influence, or listening to them," he said.
"One-nation Labour has learnt the lessons of the financial crisis. It begins from the truth that New Labour did not do enough to bring about structural change in our economy to make it work for the many, not just the few. It did not do enough to change the rules of the game that were holding our economy back," he added.
The housing charity Shelter applauded his blueprint yesterday. Its chief executive, Campbell Robb, said: "With homeownership slipping further out of reach for ordinary families, millions are bearing the brunt of Britain's overheated private rental market. Every day Shelter sees the misery caused by rogue landlords, and hears from families worried about another rent rise or sudden eviction from their home."