For years people have been crying out for improvements in the private rented sector. Will the latest government recommendations make any difference?
The report by the House of Commons communities and local government select committee is an excellent and extensive study of the issues in the private rented sector. It contains a lengthy list of recommendations including effective regulation of letting agents, consolidating the bewildering array of legislation and raising the standards in the sector through local authority action.
It also notes that the government has taken its eye off the ball with its focus on attracting institutional investment through the build to rent fund. Hopefully, this might rebalance government policy.
However, we should not be overly optimistic that the eight pages of conclusions and recommendations will be acted on. There has been a vast array of studies by academics, governments, pressure groups and trade bodies in the last 10 years highlighting the challenges of poor quality housing products and services, as well as affordability issues and the lack of new supply. But co-ordinated action has been conspicuous in its absence. There are a number of reasons for this that might well be replicated in the outcome to this current report.
The private rented sector is diverse. Landlords range from professional landlords, accidental landlords (home owners unable to sell who therefore rent out their property), amateur buy-to-let investors and, of course, rogue landlords letting garages and garden shed to illegal immigrants. Tenants vary from young professionals, students living in houses in multiple occupation and families looking for long-term accommodation because of their inability to afford a home. There is no ‘one size fits all’ solution.
The government, as evidenced by the contribution from the housing minister to the committee, appears to favour a light touch on regulation and wishes to promote further dialogue between representatives of landlords and tenants groups, pressure groups and professional bodies to promote good practice. This is hardly decisive action to tackle the worst abuses in the sector by both rogue landlords and bad tenants.
As the committee’s report shows, there is an agreement that action is needed but little consensus over what it should be as there are considerable differences of opinions between organisations over many policy and practice aspects. Localism seems to be flavour of the month with an emphasis on councils taking the lead – but is this realistic? Many of the powers available are not a mandatory requirement and local authorities are unlikely to have the resources or the political will to prioritise the private rented sector as over, for example, social care.
There is a grave danger that this report will merely add to the literature on the private rented sector and be followed by further studies for the rest of this decade. So how do we get out of this cycle of well-informed and evidence-based studies leading to little meaningful action?
As a society, we need to reach a consensus on the long-term role of the private rented sector and develop policies accordingly. I agree with the committee chair Clive Betts who said he wants to see renting as an attractive alternative to owner occupation – but do we all support this or would we prefer to continue to promote owner occupation as the tenure that everyone should aspire to?
We also need to design and deliver legislation and best practice for the private rented sector for the future. Existing regulations relate to previous eras and a tidying up of current overlaps and complexities is insufficient. And if we are serious about tackling current issues in the private rented sector through localism, resources must be made available to councils.
Dr Tim Brown is director of the Centre for Comparative Housing Research at De Montfort University and gave evidence to the select committee on the private rented sector.
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