Thomas Turrell is the Deputy Area Chairman of London South-East Conservatives. He was the agent in Greenwich & Woolwich at both the 2015 and 2017 General Election and Campaign Manager in the 2018 Lewisham Mayoral Election.
Earlier this year, the Guardian reported that the Labour Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, will make rent controls a central part of his re-election bid in 2020. The reports were followed by an article from the Mayor later in the week, explaining why he believes the capital needs rent controls. This won’t come as a surprise, rent controls were a big part of the Labour manifesto, which Khan as the then Shadow Minister for London helped write in 2015. The policy featured again in the 2017 manifesto – both general elections saw Labour gain seats from the Conservatives in the capital.
Winning renters back to the Conservatives is vital for any recovery for us in London. The Mayor is on the record acknowledging he has no power to deliver rent controls. However that doesn’t mean he can’t lobby for them and I’d be surprised if they didn’t have a go at third time lucky in the next Labour General Election manifesto. The number of privately rented homes in London has overtaken the number of owner-occupied homes. Between 2006 and 2016 home ownership in London fell by 17 per cent; the make-up of London is changing. Appealing to renters has to be a top priority to any would-be Mayor and the current Mayor is making his pitch.
That is not to say we’ve had our fingers in our ears. Conservative Governments since 2010 have already made big steps in helping more people own their own home and the number of first time buyers is at its highest level in twelve years. That is thanks to policies such as: no stamp duty for first time buyers, building more starter homes, the help to buy scheme and lifetime ISA, and the extending right to buy scheme. Neither have we had our back turned to renters. On June 1st there will be a huge change to the law when this Conservative government bans excessive tenant’s fees: massive changes to the market that will benefit tenants cross the country. But this isn’t job done, or problem solved – there is more we need to do.
Justine Greening is at the forefront of the move to ensure that monthly rent payments count towards credit files. The current credit system encourages borrowing and can trap people in a debt circle. Allowing people to build up strong credit scores while paying their rent will help combat this and put renters and homeowners on an equal footing. Every month I pay a large chunk of my take home pay out in rent. It’s never late but should I choose to move house this won’t be taken into account through the credit check. Instead the system encourages renters like me to run up debts to show I can pay them off. It is such a simple move that could make a huge difference.
We also need a new focus on renting standards. Restaurants are hygiene rated with the scores of the doors, taxis and private hires all need to be licenced. You wouldn’t get into a strangers car, yet anyone can rent a house with little or no checks on property or landlord.
Many local authorities are now introducing landlord licence schemes and using this to help ensure landlords are trained on and understand their responsibilities. We can take this policy further and can use such schemes as a way to score the service of a landlord / property manager, as well as ensuring properties are in a good condition. One of the reasons I am a Conservative is my belief that competition is the best way to secure decent standards and having an independent party provide a public rating will mean landlords will need to look after properties. In addition to this, landlords having a public rating with the local authority would help catch out the rogue landlords who operate below the radar – if a landlord doesn’t have a score then tenants will know they haven’t been accredited. This isn’t about making life harder for the majority of good landlords; it is about helping tenants avoid the bad ones.
Finally, we need to speed up the return of deposits and make taking reductions harder. The deposit protection scheme has been useful, but it needs strengthening and updating. Before a deduction is made there should be evidence that more the one quote has been obtained and that the cheapest quote was used. There should also be evidence that the work was complete. A management company once took my full deposit because they claimed a wall needed painting, it so happened that I knew the people moving in after me and therefore knew the walls had not been painted – they just took the money. In a time where a deposit can be the equivalent of a month’s salary this is unacceptable. Tenants need to have more faith that their deposits are protected and will be returned if the property is kept in a good condition. Furthermore we need to introduce a statutory time limit on how long a landlord has before the deposit is released. I don’t want to make life harder for landlords, I simply believe we should making the scales weighed more evenly.
Like many other renters in London, I never experienced the rent controls of the 1970s, so I ask myself this: why was the scheme abolished in the first place? It is because they reduce investment in properties leading to poorer standards and end up reducing the rental stock in the capital. The Mayor is seeking an easy answer to a complex problem, and we can expose this by offering practical policies as an alternative. This isn’t a game of landlord’s versus tenants but about ensuring that a market is delivering for both sides.
The office of National Statistics claim that between 2005 and 2017 the amount of rent Londoners are paying as a percentage of income has increased from just over 30 per cent to 41.5 per cent. The ONS also claim the average rent payment in London has increased from just below £1,250 per month in 2007 to £1,590 per month in 2017. My first one bedroom flat cost me £750 per month and that was considered expensive, more recently I have paid to close to £1,000 a month. As Conservatives we need to be ensuring that standards are going up, not just the rent.
I have been a renter in London for close to ten years, I have had some amazing landlords and I’ve had some truly terrible ones. Everyone I know who is or has been a tenant has a landlord horror story. What’s most shocking is that this just seems to be accepted as the way things are. Rent controls won’t tackle the issue of rogue landlords, it risks making the problem worse. It is a policy written by homeowners for the problems they imagine, not the problems they experience.
Renters are growing in numbers and growing in frustration, and we need to listen, learn and act. Talking about the failings of rent controls isn’t the same as offering a credible alternative. Answers to the problems of the rental market cannot be found in state controls, but instead are found when we ask ourselves how the market can better work for tenants. Faith in the market is vital to our economy but sadly too many renters feel that landlords and letting agents run the market. Labour has raised their flag on the ground of rent controls; now the spotlight turns to us to offer an alternative.