The public supports stronger tenant rights. The government needs to act

How terribly kind of you. Image: Getty.

More than half of the population (53 per cent) do not think that renting privately works fairly for tenants, according to a recent report from the IPPR.

It is easy to see why. Limited protection from eviction, rising rents and poor conditions all impact on the public's perception of the sector. Hardly surprising then that 61 per cent of people do not think that the sector provides tenants with a long-term, stable home and 59 per cent say it does not provide affordable homes.

As part of our research, IPPR conducted focus groups across the country with tenants and landlords, aiming to understand more about people’s experiences of the tenure and what they would like to see done to reform it.

Through our in-depth conversations with tenants we found that many remain very concerned about the insecurity of private renting, worrying about having to move at short notice and putting them off complaining about repairs or poor conditions for fear of appearing as a nuisance. The high cost of rents, fees and deposits contributed further to this insecurity and caused hardship for a number of those we spoke to.

Experiences with poor conditions were commonplace, as were difficulties in getting landlords to complete repairs. Moreover, tenants often did not feel at home in the sector, with limits placed on them by landlords – preventing them from decorating for example – making them feel as though they didn’t have control over their home.

From the landlords’ perspective, many were concerned about welfare reform, which made them reluctant to let to those in receipt of housing benefit; reforms and reductions to tax relief on private landlords, which had reduced their income; and the legal system, which many felt was too slow in the rare cases where a tenant was not paying rent, exposing them to many months with no rental income.

Our research also found that tenants and landlords share some key issues. They both lack knowledge on their rights and responsibilities, undermining their ability to exercise them and meaning that tenants cannot assume lawful treatment by default.

They both felt the other party had greater power in the system. Tenants feel that they lack power in the system as a whole, resulting in mistrust, while landlords have expressed frustration at a lack of power in key parts of the process, principally at the end of a tenancy.


Finally, both tenants and landlords have limited trust in the system and the ability of government to reform it, demonstrating that reforms will need to build confidence in the sector if they are to be successful.

However, it was not all doom and gloom. We also found support for reform amongst landlords. Many recognised the impact a lack of security had on tenants, particularly those with children, and expressed a willingness for extra security to be offered to renters.

The government is making positive, though tentative, steps in reforming the sector – banning letting agency fees, consulting on the introduction of longer tenancies and exploring court reform. But, as in so many areas, this important area of domestic policy risks being starved of attention in the face of dealing with Brexit.

Failing to address the issues with the private rented sector would be a major own goal for the government given the widespread support for reform: 72 per cent of the public think government should be more involved in improving and regulating the private rented sector. Moreover, analysis conducted by the housing charity Shelter has shown that in marginal constituencies, private tenants make up a significant block of voters.

That 4.7m households have limited access to a stable home, are more likely to suffer poor conditions and lack control over their home are fundamental issue of justice. But as our work has shown, tackling these issues wouldn’t just ensure that the sector was more just: it would be hugely popular with tenants and the wider public, too.

Darren Baxter is a research fellow at IPPR.

 
 
 
 

What does the Greater Manchester Spatial Plan mean for the region’s housing supply and green belt?

Manchester. Image: Getty.

We’re not even halfway through January and we’ve already seen one of the biggest urban stories of the year – the release of Greater Manchester’s new spatial plan for the city-region. The Greater Manchester Spatial Framework (GMSF) sets an ambitious target to build more than 200,000 homes over the next 18 years.

Despite previous statements indicating greenbelt development was off the table, the plan allows for some moderate easing of greenbelt, combined with denser city centre development. This is sensible, pragmatic and to be welcomed but a question remains: will it be enough to keep Manchester affordable over the long-term?

First, some history on Manchester’s housing strategy: This is not the first iteration of the controversial GMSF. The first draft was released by Greater Manchester’s council leaders back in October 2016 (before Andy Burnham was in post), and aimed to build 227,000 houses by 2037. Originally, it proposed releasing 8.2 per cent of the green belt to provide land for housing. Many campaigners opposed this, and the newly elected mayor, Andy Burnham, sent the plan back to the drawing board in 2017.

The latest draft published this week contains two important changes. First, it releases slightly less greenbelt land than the original plan, 4.1 per cent of the total, but more than Andy Burnham previously indicated he would. Second, while the latest document is still ambitious, it plans for 26,000 fewer homes over the same period than the original.

To build up or to build out?

In many cities, the housing supply challenge is often painted as a battle-ground between building high-density homes in the city centre or encroaching on the green belt. Greater Manchester is fortunate in that it lacks the density of cities such as London – suggesting less of a confrontation between people who what to build up and people who want to build out.

Prioritising building on Greater Manchester’s plentiful high-density city centre brownfield land first is right and will further incentivise investment in public transport to reduce the dependence of the city on cars. It makes the goal in the mayor’s new transport plan of 50 per cent of all journeys in Greater Manchester be made on foot, bikes or public transport by 2040 easier to realise.

However, unlike Greater London’s greenbelt which surrounds the capital, Greater Manchester’s green belt extends deep into the city-region, making development on large amounts of land between already urbanised parts of the city-region more difficult. This limits the options to build more housing in parts of Greater Manchester close to the city centre and transport nodes. The worry is that without medium-term reform to the shape of Manchester’s green belt, it may tighten housing supply in Manchester even more than the green belt already does in places such as London and York. In the future, when looking to undertake moderate development on greenbelt land, the mayor should look to develop in these areas of ‘interior greenbelt’ first.

Greater Manchester’s Green Belt and Local Authority Boundaries, 2019.

Despite the scale of its ambition, the GMSF cannot avoid the sheer size of the green belt forever: it covers 47 per cent of the total metropolitan area). In all likelihood, plans to reduce the size of the green belt by 2 per cent will need to be looked at again once the existing supply of brownfield land runs low – particularly if housing demand over the next 18 years is higher than the GMSF expects, which should be the case if the city region’s economy continues to grow.

An example of a successful political collaboration

The GMSF was a politically pragmatic compromise achieved through the cooperation of the metropolitan councils and the mayoral authority to boost the supply of homes. It happened because Greater Manchester’s mayor has an elected mandate to implement and integrate the GMSF and the new transport plan.

Other cities and the government should learn from this. The other metro mayors currently lacking spatial planning powers, in Tees Valley and the West Midlands, should be gifted Greater Manchester-style planning powers by the government so they too can plan and deliver the housing and transport their city-regions need.

Long-term housing strategies that are both sustainable and achievable need to build both up and out. In the short-term Greater Manchester has achieved this, but in the future, if its economic success is maintained, it will need to be bolder on the green belt than the proposals in the current plan. By 2037 Manchester will not face a trade-off between high-density flats in the city centre or green belt reform – it will need to do both.  If the city region is to avoid the housing problems that bedevil London and other successful cities, policy makers need to be ready for this.

Anthony Breach is an economic analyst at the Centre for Cities, on whose blog this post first appeared.