In today’s London, even renting is a nightmare

You wish. Image: Getty.

Everyone knows that London is in the middle of a housing crisis. The capital exists inside a bubble of insane rent, insane mortgages and insane train fares.

And as someone who is now a seasoned renter in London, it never fails to amaze me just how expensive it is to get anything. As friends in Sheffield, Leeds and Liverpool start to buy their own houses, I've grown used to wistfully looking in estate agents windows at £300,000 one-bedroom flats wondering if it's ever going to happen.

What I didn't account for, however, was how difficult it would be to even rent somewhere. After living this year alone in the World's Worst Flat which had rats in the ceiling, a Travelodge in Kings Cross and a very artistic if draughty East London sublet, I decided to get a proper place with an actual friend in a similar situation: just me and him, free from the awkward-kitchen-chats and passive-aggressiveness of a house share.

We set a seemingly attainable budget of £1,200, and set out to zone three to look for a place to live in zone. That place actually turned out to be zone five, but cost ‘only’ £600 each a month, which seemed attainable.

But then came the vetting – and I can't help but feel like I could have literally got a mortgage with less probing.

As typical 20-something London dwellers, me and my flatmate earn what would be a decent wage in most other places, but a starting wage in London. I also have no less than four (4) accounts attached to the current account, into which I transfer my entire wage into each month: one for savings, one for rent and my tube pass, one for money I can spend through the month, and lastly my daily account, in which I put an allowance. Try explaining all that to the landlord who is asking if you can manage money properly.

Then, seemingly because we are 20-somethings with lower salaries and endless bank accounts to try and save for a mortgage like you see all those other 20-somethings doing, the landlord decided he would ask us for a double deposit. For "security". The issue was that security for him took away a lot of security from us, by depleting our savings. We couldn't pull out, the landlords wouldn't accept further references, and it was the cheapest but most decent flat we'd seen. Also, if we said no to paying double the deposit – add in one month's rent in advance and agency fees, and the total came to over £2,000 per person – we'd have lost the £500 holding deposit. Great.


I contacted Shelter, sure that this couldn't be right. The housing charity told me that actually there are no regulations covering this sort of thing at all: landlords can choose to charge what they feel comfortable with. 

I understand the landlord's need for security, but as two people who have never been late on rent, my flatmate-to-be and I were fairly miffed. This is all standard procedure; but it made life difficult and stressful when all we wanted was an affordable place to live.

It's not unreasonable to imagine that the eastern end of zone 5 would be far enough away from central London to find more reasonable prices. And we all know around £650 a month is an excellent deal for London. Yet the process itself felt stressful and precarious, and I'm not even living in the flat yet.

Could I move out of London? I had a look at the average rent in Doncaster, A Yorkshire town near to my hometown, served by the East Coast Main Line runs from. There are flats for £420, which seems an excellent deal it seems. The only hitch is a twelve-month rail pass would cost me £12,212.

So until we really start on that devolution hype, or start to regulate rent, it feels a lot like I and thousands of others will be stuck paying these ridiculous rental fees forever.

 

 
 
 
 

What's actually in the UK government’s bailout package for Transport for London?

Wood Green Underground station, north London. Image: Getty.

On 14 May, hours before London’s transport authority ran out of money, the British government agreed to a financial rescue package. Many details of that bailout – its size, the fact it was roughly two-thirds cash and one-third loan, many conditions attached – have been known about for weeks. 

But the information was filtered through spokespeople, because the exact terms of the deal had not been published. This was clearly a source of frustration for London’s mayor Sadiq Khan, who stood to take the political heat for some of the ensuing cuts (to free travel for the old or young, say), but had no way of backing up his contention that the British government made him do it.

That changed Tuesday when Transport for London published this month's board papers, which include a copy of the letter in which transport secretary Grant Shapps sets out the exact terms of the bailout deal. You can read the whole thing here, if you’re so minded, but here are the three big things revealed in the new disclosure.

Firstly, there’s some flexibility in the size of the deal. The bailout was reported to be worth £1.6 billion, significantly less than the £1.9 billion that TfL wanted. In his letter, Shapps spells it out: “To the extent that the actual funding shortfall is greater or lesser than £1.6bn then the amount of Extraordinary Grant and TfL borrowing will increase pro rata, up to a maximum of £1.9bn in aggregate or reduce pro rata accordingly”. 

To put that in English, London’s transport network will not be grinding to a halt because the government didn’t believe TfL about how much money it would need. Up to a point, the money will be available without further negotiations.

The second big takeaway from these board papers is that negotiations will be going on anyway. This bail out is meant to keep TfL rolling until 17 October; but because the agency gets around three-quarters of its revenues from fares, and because the pandemic means fares are likely to be depressed for the foreseeable future, it’s not clear what is meant to happen after that. Social distancing, the board papers note, means that the network will only be able to handle 13 to 20% of normal passenger numbers, even when every service is running.


Shapps’ letter doesn’t answer this question, but it does at least give a sense of when an answer may be forthcoming. It promises “an immediate and broad ranging government-led review of TfL’s future financial position and future financial structure”, which will publish detailed recommendations by the end of August. That will take in fares, operating efficiencies, capital expenditure, “the current fiscal devolution arrangements” – basically, everything. 

The third thing we leaned from that letter is that, to the first approximation, every change to London’s transport policy that is now being rushed through was an explicit condition of this deal. Segregated cycle lanes, pavement extensions and road closures? All in there. So are the suspension of free travel for people under 18, or free peak-hours travel for those over 60. So are increases in the level of the congestion charge.

Many of these changes may be unpopular, but we now know they are not being embraced by London’s mayor entirely on their own merit: They’re being pushed by the Department of Transport as a condition of receiving the bailout. No wonder Khan was miffed that the latter hadn’t been published.

Jonn Elledge was founding editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.