The truth universally acknowledged is that 9 million people in this country currently live in accommodation rented from private landlords. The number has grown dramatically over the past few years as rocketing house prices squeeze more and more out of home ownership. Yet when house prices rise, that is “a good thing”. Perversely, when rents inevitably rise as well, that is “a bad thing”.
Most landlords are good, others are bad. Most tenants are good while others are bad. The relationship can be, or become, fraught. Something must be done.
Ed Miliband has promised to do that something and, for once, it would appear that his proposals have been well considered and thought through, although some of his rhetoric is, well retro. He speaks of
“families at risk of being thrown out after that with just two months’ notice with no reason” and others “told to accept huge rent rises or face eviction”. I would suggest these are rare exceptions proving the rule that most amateur landlords just want a quiet life and a steady income.
But the strongest evidence that Ed’s got it right is the hysterical reactions from the usual suspects.
Rent controls will make us “like Venezuela” shrieked Tory Party chairman Grant Shapps, on whose watch the housing market had gone from drama to crisis. Sam Bowman of the Adam Smith Institute went even further. "Rent control is a stunningly bad idea that could devastate Britain’s cities and clobber renters”, he said. “The only thing worse for cities than rent control is bombing them." Herman Goering, you should be alive this day.
So what did Luftwaffe Ed actually say? “The next Labour government will legislate to make three year tenancies the standard in the British private rented sector to give people who rent the certainty they need. These new longer-term tenancies will limit the amount that rents can rise by each year too - so landlords know what they can expect each year and tenants can’t be surprised by rents that go through the roof.”
It is hard to fault either of these promises which are, if anything, long overdue. Limiting the rate of rent rises after they have been agreed – for instance, by linking them to the RPI – is both reasonable and fair to both parties. Longer tenancies are ideal for good tenants and good landlords alike, as rapid changeovers are a big headache for both. The only losers will be letting agents, and it couldn’t happen to a nicer bunch of people.
The toxic Right-wing reactions – coupled with the lukewarm response from Unite – tell me that Labour has finally got something that 9 million people out there can vote for unreservedly. Given that what Miliband is suggesting is effectively the highly successful German model, renters are unlikely to be scared off by Venezuela. Limiting the amount by which rents can go up is hardly draconian, and landlords will continue to benefit from the sensational rise in the capital value of their asset as well.
As for the longer tenancies, given the get-out clauses (unpaid rent, antisocial behaviour and a genuine need for the landlord to get his property back) they are to be welcomed as long as system is set up to adjudicate these cases quickly and cheaply outside the court system. I have often called for a Housing Tribunal to do this on the Small Claims Court model, Ed. Now is the time.
Even if Labour wins in 2015, it will be at least two years until any of this becomes law. As it will not be applied retroactively, the impact of Ed’s speech may do no more than make buy-to-letters think a little harder about the pros and cons of being a long-term landlord. Which would be no bad thing.