This is why every party’s manifesto should promise to improve renting

Here we go again. Image: Getty.

If you’re one of the 13 million people in the UK who lives in private rented housing, you’re probably already aware that the sector is in desperate need of reform. In return for high rents –for many tenants, rents swallow more than 40 per cent of their wages – private renters put up with substandard, often dangerous conditions, all in the knowledge that they could be forced out for no reason at just two months’ notice.

Successive Governments have responded to the decline in home ownership by trying to boost the number of first time buyers, with not enough attention on what makes us desperate to escape renting in the first place. House prices remain out of reach, the private renter population has doubled in size since 1997, and high rents are crushing our ability to save – or even put food on the table. One in three millennials now face renting privately for their entire lives, and an increasing number of people are raising families and growing old in a sector which is not fit for purpose.

That's why renters and housing campaigners from across England – where Westminster has powers over housing policy – have today launched a national Renter Manifesto. This election is a chance to finally address the housing emergency – but we need all parties to commit to radical reform of private renting.

Written by Generation Rent, London Renters Union, ACORN, New Economics Foundation, Renters’ Rights London and Tenants Union UK, the manifesto sets out policies needed to achieve this. We need the next government to commit to ending unfair Section 21 evictions, end the discrimination against tenants on housing benefit, and introduce a national landlord register to help councils root out rogue and criminal landlords. Rents are currently so high that two thirds of renters have no savings whatsoever and would struggle to find rent after just one month if they lost their job – we urgently need to see measures to bring rents down sustainably to an affordable level.

Renters are a growing political force, with the power to influence the result of this election. The size and diversity of the private renter population - 1 in 3 households have kids, and the fastest growing age group among them is 55-64 year olds – means political parties cannot afford to ignore these issues.

In 2017, these forces began to be felt. Between the 2015 and 2017 elections, the turnout among private renters jumped 10 per centage points – even as it was largely unchanged amongst homeowners. The chief beneficiary of this, Number Cruncher Politics found, was Labour, which saw its vote among private renters increase by 18 per cent. Recent polling of voting intention amongst 18-24 year olds confirms this trend: as the number of young owner occupiers falls, so does support for the Conservatives, with just 16 per cent of this age group considering voting Tory.

Support from renters could make all the difference in marginal constituencies. Across the UK, renters make up 20 per cent of the population, and there are currently 47 seats in England with higher than average private renter population and a parliamentary majority of less than 5,000 votes. These include seats currently held by current Cabinet ministers Robert Buckland (South Swindon), Theresa Villiers (Chipping Barnet) and Alok Sharma (Reading West). A quarter of people in Hastings & Rye, where the Conservative Party have a wafer-thin majority of just 345, live in the private rental sector. In key target seats across the country, private renters could cast the deciding vote. It would be a mistake for the parties to overlook this.

For too long, policymakers have seen home ownership as the only tenure worthy of support. In recent years, renter organisations have fought back and in the Parliament just ending we’ve won a ban on letting agent fees and new rights to sue landlords.

But there is still more to do to give everyone the secure, safe and affordable home they deserve – and this election is an opportunity for private renters to demand this.

Caitlin Wilkinson is the Policy and Public Affairs Manager at Generation Rent.


To see how a city embraces remote work, just look to Helsinki

A deeply rooted culture of trust is crucial to the success of remote work. (Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

When I speak to Anssi Salminen, an account manager who lives an hour outside Helsinki, he’s working from a wooden platform on the edge of a Finnish lake. With a blanket laid out and his laptop set up, the sun low in the sky, Anssi’s remote work arrangement seems blissful. 

“I spend around half of my time working somewhere else other than the office,” he says. “I can work from home, or on the go, and I also travel to the Netherlands once a month and work from there.

“The emphasis in my work has always been that it doesn’t matter when or where I work, as long as I get things done.”

For many people around the world, the shift to remote work was sudden, sparked by the coronavirus pandemic. Finland, however, is finding the transition much less significant. Before Covid-19, the Nordic nation already displayed impressive levels of remote working, with 14.1% of its workforce reporting usually working from home. Only the Netherlands has a comparable percentage of remote workers, while the UK lagged behind at 4.7%, and the US’s remote workforce lingered at around 3.6%

Anssi works for one of many Helsinki-based companies that offers its employees flexible policies around when and where they work. That arrangement is in part due to the Finnish capital’s thriving start-up scene. In spite of being a relatively small city by global standards it is home to over 500 technology start-ups. These companies are leading the way when it comes to keeping employees connected wherever they choose to work.

“Our company has a completely location-free working policy,” says Kasper Pöyry, the CEO of Helsinki-headquartered software company Gapps. “All meetings are made available for online participants and facilitated accordingly. Some employees have worked extensively from abroad on a working holiday, whilst others prefer the comfort and social aspects of the well-stocked office. Whatever works for our employees is what works for the company.”

Like Gapps, many Helsinki-based firms are deeply preoccupied with providing the necessary technology to attract talent in a vast and sparsely populated country. Finland has only 15 inhabitants per square kilometre, and companies understand that in order to compose teams of specialised expertise, they may have to seek talent outside of the city. Local governments take a similarly proactive stance toward technological access, and Helsinki offers free, unrestricted, high-speed Wi-Fi from city-wide hotspots, while the country as a whole boasts some of the best coverage in Europe. 

But encouraging remote work isn’t just about optimising the potential of Finland’s workforce – companies in Helsinki also recognise that flexibility has clear benefits for both staff and employees. 

“The idea of a good work-life balance is ingrained in Finnish culture,” says Johannes Anttila, a consultant at organisational think tank Demos Helsinki. “It goes back to our rich history of social dialogue between labour unions and employers, but also to an interest in delineating the rules of working life and pushing towards people being able to enjoy their private life. Helsinki has been named the best city in the world for work-life balance, and I think that this underlies a lot of the mentality around remote work.” 

For Peter Seenan, the extent to which Helsinki residents value their free time and prioritise a work-life balance prompted his move to the city ten years ago. He now works for Finnair, and points to Finland’s summer cottages as an example of how important taking time to switch off is for people in the country. These rural residences, where city residents regularly uproot to enjoy the Nordic countryside, are so embedded in Finnish life that the country boasts around 1.8 million of them for its 5.5 million residents

“Flexible and remote work are very important to me because it means that I don’t feel like I’m getting stuck in a routine that I can’t control easily,” he says. “When I’m working outside of the office I’ll go down to my local sauna and go ice swimming during the working day, typically at lunchtime or mid-morning, and I’ll feel rejuvenated afterwards… In winter time especially, flexibility is important because it makes it easier to go outside during daylight hours. It’s certainly beneficial for my physical and mental health, and as a result my productivity improves.”

The relaxed attitude to working location seems to pay off – Finland is regularly named the happiest country in the world, scoring highly on measures such as how often its residents exercise and how much leisure time they enjoy. With large swathes of unspoiled countryside and a national obsession with the outdoors, sustainability is at the forefront of its inhabitants’ minds, leading to high levels of support for measures to limit commuting. In January, Finland passed a new Working Hours Act, the goal of which was to help better coordinate employee’s work and leisure time. Central to this is cementing in law that employees can independently decide how, when, and where they work.

Yet enacting the new ruling is not as simple as just sending employees home with their laptops. For Kirsimarja Blomqvist, a professor of knowledge management at LUT University, perhaps the most fundamental feature that remote work relies upon is a deeply rooted culture of trust, which Helsinki’s residents speak of with pride. The anecdotal evidence is backed up by data which suggests that Finland boasts one of the highest levels of trust and social cohesion in Europe, and equality and transparency have always been key cornerstones of political thought in the country.

“Trust is part of a national culture in Finland – it’s important and people value it highly,” she explains. “There’s good job independence, and people are valued in terms of what they do, not how many hours they work for. Organisations tend to be non-hierarchical, and there is a rich history of cooperation between trade unions, employers, and employees to set up innovative working practices and make workers feel trusted and valued. 

“It’s now important that we ensure that this trust can continue to be built over technology, when workers might have been more used to building it face-to-face.”

As companies begin to look hopefully toward a post-Covid future, the complexities of remote work are apparent. Yet amid issues of privacy, presenteeism, and social isolation, the Helsinki model demonstrates the potential benefits of a distanced working world. The adjustment to remote work, if continued after the crisis, offers a chance to improve companies’ geographical diversity and for employers to demonstrate trust in their workforce. On these issues, Blomqvist believes other cities and employers can learn a lot from Helsinki.

“People are now beginning to return to their workplaces, but even as they do they are starting to consider the crisis as a jumping point to an even more remote future,” she says. “The coronavirus pandemic has been an eye-opener, and people are now interested in learning from Finland’s good practices… We are able to see the opportunity, and the rapid transition to remote work will allow other countries to do the same.”

Katie Bishop is a freelance writer based in Oxford.