1. Governance
December 16, 2019

Boris Johnson now has the majority to fix the housing crisis – if he wants to

By Dan Wilson

The shock hung Parliament at the 2017 General Election was attributed in large part to a Rentquake: private renters voted in greater numbers and favoured Labour.

This time around, a similar pattern is harder to detect. Looking at the 47 marginal seats with a large private renter population, Labour lost Leave-voting Ipswich and Peterborough, but increased their majorities in seats like Reading East and Portsmouth South.

Exactly how private renters voted on Thursday will take some further analysis. But in the two and a half years since the renters’ movement announced itself as a political force, the Conservatives, worried about alienating a fifth of the population, have made some efforts to neutralise housing as an electoral issue.

The party’s manifesto contained two policies that Generation Rent has been campaigning for: reform of the deposit protection system to passport tenants’ cash between tenancies, and the abolition of unfair Section 21 evictions. The latter policy, which was adopted by all parties, will give tenants more security in their homes and prevent homelessness.

But without limits on rent increases, as advocated by Labour and the Liberal Democrats, unscrupulous landlords could still bully tenants who ask for repairs. When pressed on this in an interview, housing secretary Robert Jenrick rejected “old fashioned” rent controls and suggested mere “guidance” on rent increases would be considered as part of reforms.

The Tories also diverged from their opponents on building more social housing. They didn’t match the other parties’ commitments to 100,000 or more new social homes a year, only promising a “White Paper” to support their “continued supply”.

Instead, the focus of the housing elements of the party’s manifesto was home ownership. To help more people buy their own home, it has promised longer term mortgages and discounted starter homes. But if delivered – and not one of the 200,000 starter homes announced by David Cameron has been – these policies will only benefit those who can save in the first place. Two thirds of private renters have no savings at all – let alone enough for a 5 per cent deposit.

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To really make a difference, the new government must invest in substantial numbers of new social homes. These would take the worst-off tenants out of the unaffordable private sector, in turn reducing demand in the wider market, bringing rents down for everyone. Only then would private renters enjoy more cash at the end of the month to put aside for the future – or put food on the table.

The size of the Conservatives’ victory presents Boris Johnson with two options: ignore the housing crisis and pay lip service to home ownership and house building; or use his political capital to do the right thing. Controversial but necessary decisions are needed on the green belt and property tax if we want a housing system that allows people to live near their work, and rewards them more for going to work than for owning property. These issues have been ducked by previous governments with shakier mandates and rebellious banckbenchers. But Johnson has more ability to ignore the party’s allies of landlords and take action – if he wants to.

Johnson’s speech on Friday morning suggested that we were getting more than just a traditional Conservative programme of government. He highlighted the trust that first-time Conservative voters placed in him and his party and the need not to let them down.

For many of these voters, they, their children and their grandchildren see no prospect of a stable home. Our polling shows that protection from eviction and rent control is popular, and with cross-party support, an effective package of tenancy reform would be a quick win for the new Parliament.

But democracy does not end at the ballot box and governments of any stripe must be held to their promises. Generation Rent will keep making renters’ voices heard, making the case for reform – and keeping the pressure on until we have a fair housing system.

Dan Wilson Craw is director of Generation Rent

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