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UK’s private rental sector – growing but not grown up

What can we learn from Germany?

One of the biggest changes in housing over the last 20 years has been the huge, unplanned growth of the private renting sector (PRS). But its unfettered growth has come at a price – which is paid for by some of our newly lauded key workers in the NHS and care sectors and the vulnerable – who are sacrificing their life chances, trapped in insecure, unstable, expensive accommodation.

Can Germany, which has the largest PRS in the EU, offer some lessons on a better way of doing things?

This is what I set out to explore last year when I got a Churchill Fellowship to carry out research on lessons we can learn from housing in Germany. The report Private Rented Housing: a broken system in Britain? Lessons to help fix it from 3 cities in Germany has just been published.

Can Germany, which has the largest PRS in the EU, offer some lessons on a better way of doing things? #redbrickblog

The PRS has grown enormously in the UK. It has doubled to 4.7million – i.e. 1 in 5 households – over the last 20 years, and in England it now houses more tenants than the social housing sector. It is a diverse sector with accommodation ranging from high end to housing of last resort. It is no longer a rite of passage for the young and transient – it is a sector that millions will live in for life.

It houses those who are unable to afford to buy, including many key workers and those in ‘Generation Rent’, and many families who in previous years would have qualified for social housing. The difference is they can be charged four times as much for a private rent as a social rent in areas like London. Sometimes for a neighbouring flat on the same council estate! And unlike their neighbours who rent from a social landlord, private tenants in England have to live with the threat of losing their home on the whim of a landlord as they have Assured Shorthold Tenancies.

The PRS was never designed to fulfil such a major role in UK housing and it needs to change to meet the real needs of our communities.  

The picture is very different in Germany. Germany has the largest PRS in Europe – 40% of households rent and this rises to 70% in major cities. Renting is affordable and mainstreamed – not stigmatised.

Overall Germany has a better PRS. ‘Better’ in the sense that it gives tenants greater security of tenure, more affordable rents, higher standards and a stronger voice to advocate for their rights and represent their interests.  And it is ‘better’ as a sector that supports and incentivises good landlords for the long term, thus improving local housing provision and sense of community. Crucially, Germany’s local government is stronger and better resourced and this helps Germany to build twice as many homes, including affordable ones, as the UK.

Obviously we cannot transplant another country’s housing system onto our own. Not least because each country’s housing market has grown in different cultural, historical and political environments. However, I found 5 factors that offer some important and transferable lessons for the UK. These are:

  • Stable and secure tenancies – We all value a stable and secure home – never more so than in the current lockdown. Yet, notwithstanding the current temporary ban, most private tenants in England can be evicted with 2 months notice for no reason, and this will apply after the ban. In contrast Germany, and most of the developed world, have secure, open ended tenancies where the grounds for eviction are based on breaking the rules eg rent arrears etc. Scotland introduced open ended tenancies in 2017 with no reported adverse effects on landlords or supply – so why not England?
  • Tools for regulating the PRS – Rent levels are more affordable and stable largely because they are regulated. There is data transparency – everybody knows the average rent in their area as they are published in a comprehensive local Rent Index (Mietspiegel). This information is used to help regulate rents effectively. It means rents in Berlin are typically 50% of equivalent lets in London.
  • A stronger voice for tenants –Tenants have greater access to advice and advocacy through a national network of self-funded tenants associations (Mieterverein). This also gives tenants a strong political voice and more power.
  • Better support for landlords– One of the surprises in my research was that landlords were as supportive of the German rent regulation system as tenants. They find it provides transparency, encourages good tenants and a more stable long-term rental stream. The system also provides more incentives to good landlords through tax breaks and subsidies.
  • Growing the supply of affordable housing – a strong local vision translated into building affordable homes and communities – To ensure the PRS works well it needs to be underpinned by an adequate supply of affordable housing. Local Government in Germany is better placed to drive this as it has more powers and is better resourced than councils in the UK. I looked at 3 cities in Germany and found that each had developed its own different, but effective, housing strategies to provide affordable housing and support mixed, vibrant communities in their local areas. The result – stronger neighbourhoods and overall more housing built. Since the end of the 2nd World War Germany (West and East) has built twice as many homes – 30 million compared to 16 million in the UK.

These are all things we can learn from and implement in the UK.

Most economic and social changes occur after times of war and crisis. After 1945 Britain introduced massive changes, such as the NHS and welfare system. After the 1st World War the Government introduced the Wheatley Act, which led to extensive council house building programmes. Changes we have reason to be grateful for today.

When we come out of this national Coronavirus crisis we will need to rebuild a better Britain – a new normal.

The current crisis has exposed the unfairness and fragility of our current broken housing system. We clap for the NHS, care and other key workers every week. But the average wage for a nurse is £25k pa. So with London rents averaging £1450 per month this would eat up 84% of their take home pay. They can get a handclap but they struggle to afford a decent home.

It’s good to see the G15 group of large housing associations joining together on the ‘Homes fit for Heroes’ initiative to tackle this. And good to see London’s Deputy Mayor Tom Copley convening a housing taskforce to tackle the challenges Covid-19 poses.

Let’s make fixing Britain’s broken housing system and building homes fit for our new heroes and heroines a priority.  So that it serves everybody fairly and establishes the building blocks to a healthier, happier and better-housed society.

To find out more and read the report – Private Rented Housing: a broken system in Britain? Lessons to help fix it from 3 cities in Germany click on https://www.morehousing.co.uk/

The report is also published by the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust and is available on https://www.wcmt.org.uk/fellows/reports/lessons-germany-prs

<strong><span class="has-inline-color has-accent-color">Maureen Corcoran</span></strong>
Maureen Corcoran

Mo Corcoran started in housing as a tenant and community activist in the area where she was born – Waterloo in London – including being a chair of a local housing co operative and a member of the successful Coin Street campaign in London’s South Bank. 

She went on to work professionally in housing, rising up the ranks from being a front line housing officer to become Head of Housing in the Audit Commission where she ran the housing inspection regime.

She has also taught on the housing and community studies degree at Birkbeck College and served on several housing association boards. She currently continues to serve as a board member and works as a London Blue Badge Tourist Guide, specialising in tours on social history, housing and the suffragettes.

Mo is a Churchill Fellow.

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Closing Stamp Duty loophole should just be the start

There was something artificial about the furore over the non-payment of Stamp Duty by extremely rich people buying extremely expensive houses.  I might be the suspicious type, but George Osborne attacking a practice indulged in by the rich set bells ringing.  Some of the debate afterwards gave the impression that the 50% tax rate, the mansion tax, the tycoon tax and ending the Stamp Duty dodge were just alternative ways of getting the rich to pay more: any one would do the trick.

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Generation rent

I was suitably riled listening to Grant Shapps on World at One at lunchtime today, failing to answer sensible points and questions about the housing market from Tony Dolphin and Owen Hatherley.  His ability to avoid any question and reply in ludicrous blandishments never ceases to amaze me. 
According to Shapps, house price inflation only occurs under Labour.  He must have been too young to remember the boom under Thatcher – and even worse the bust when home owners were abandoned with vast amounts of negative equity, a huge number of repossessions – and no government help.  At least when the bust came in 2007 – and never forget it was an international banking bust whereas Thatcher’s was home grown – the Labour government took a series of important steps to protect tens of thousands of home owners, and the tenants of home owners, from foreclosure and homelessness.  
Shapps simply fails to deal with the issues raised by two important reports today.  The first, the one that grabbed the headlines, was from the Halifax who coined the phrase ‘Generation Rent’ to show that people no longer feel that they will be able to buy and that half of 20-45 year olds now think renting is the norm, similar to much of the rest of Europe. 
The second, Tony Dolphin and Matt Griffith’s serious piece of work for IPPR, Forever Blowing Bubbles? takes a long hard look at housing’s role in the UK economy with a proper historical perspective.  It makes a series of recommendations for mortgage regulation and the importance of stopping borrowers from thinking that housing market is a one-way bet.  They also make a strong case for reform of the private rented sector to provide a real alternative choice for those who need to hedge their move into home ownership.  As they say, “tenure rights are weak and the sector is poorly prepared for larger families and their needs. The professionalisation of the sector is much needed to make it the natural choice for those who wish to sidestep the risks of the owner-occupied housing market.”
At one level it seems obvious, but they demonstrate the importance of looking at the housing market as a single entity and not two markets of different tenures, arguing for “reform of the PRS to make it a less destabilising influence in the UK housing market. As we have seen, BTL (buy to let)  investment has too often been speculative, volatile and a cause of pro-cyclical price pressures in the housing market. Worse still, it appears to have cannibalised existing housing stock, led to a weak response in total housing supply, distorted existing supply incentives to encourage the overproduction of small city-centre flats, and driven out large institutional investors by pushing prices up beyond sensible yields.”
Owen Hatherley, whose interesting article on home ownership and renting is also published today, put it to Shapps that people who could no longer afford to become home owners were left at the mercy of the unregulated and insecure private rented sector, and therefore faced no real choice at all.  And that secure public sector tenancies should be a genuine option.  Exit stage right for the Minister, off on another ramble about some excruciatingly complex shared ownership option he’s invented (effectively a cut-back and rebranded Labour scheme). 
The Government avoids the big questions in housing policy today, especially how the housing market – and the vast majority of people live and will continue to live in market housing – can be made to work for people on low and moderate incomes.  There is a real opportunity for Labour to build on these interesting reports and come to some radical but sensible and appealing policies of its own as the Housing Policy Review takes shape.

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We need Isambard and a tin hat

<strong><span class="has-inline-color has-accent-color">Steve Hilditch</span></strong>
Steve Hilditch

Editor and Founder of Red Brick. Former Head of Policy for Shelter. Select Committee Advisor for Housing and Homelessness. Drafted the first London Mayor’s Housing Strategy under Ken Livingstone.

As Tony suggests in his post I agree with Grant, Grant Shapps deserves (begrudging) respect for raising the importance of achieving long term house price stability, but I hope he has his tin hat on in anticipation of the reaction in some parts of the media.  The Mail has already highlighted Shapps’ own personal property dealings as they smell ‘hypocrisy’.   Of course, never one to miss a political trick himself, Shapps also tries to pretend that house price hyper-inflation came in with the Labour government in 1997, whereas all the key trends and policies, long booms followed by a sharp and damaging busts, have been in place for a couple of generations now.

The real problem is that I can’t see anything in his or the government’s philosophy that might lead to the necessary actions being taken to bring house price stability about.  The Mail quotes Shapps as saying that homeowners should no longer rely on their houses to fund their retirement and that ministers were hoping to engineer an era of ‘house price ­stability’ in which property values would gradually be eroded by ­rising earnings.  

‘Engineering’ a market seems rather at odds with everything else they stand for.

Indeed rather a lot of extremely heavy engineering projects would be required to achieve long term price stability.  We may need the housing equivalent ofIsambard Kingdom Brunel because all of them are hard to achieve. 

The first is a better balance of supply and demand, which will need policies to massively increase the rate at which new homes are built over a sustained period of time, more than a decade.  With the regional planning framework scrapped, and huge cuts in infrastructure investment, this seems a forlorn hope to me.  

The second is the stable supply of mortgage funds on sensible terms, targeted towards the cheaper end of the new build market, to encourage developers to produce more affordable homes.  This will require a stiffer attitude towards regulation than this government promises and lenders are used to. 

The third is to tackle land prices and not just house prices – the problem in many places is not the cost of construction, but the price of the land – which can probably only be done through some kind of land value tax, not natural territory for any of the main political parties. 

And fourth, we need a stronger safety net for home owners when interest rates spike or redundancy strikes – Labour’s policies during the credit crunch were a good start in this direction.  Stable or falling prices need to be accompanied by reduced risk for individual households.

At the bottom of it the hardest change to make will be in attitudes.  A good home ownership market is vitally important, but it will fail if it is regarded as the only tenure that brings status and respect, or as a get rich quick scheme or a proxy pensions market or even a place to bung the latest bankers bonus.  The core business should be about delivering reasonably-priced homes to people on reasonable incomes, and shared ownership to people on ‘intermediate’ incomes who want it.  But the market will still fail unless we have a better understanding of the relationship between tenures.  A balanced housing market needs far more renting as well as more homes built for sale, so people at all income levels have real choice at different stages in their lives and are not forced into debt that they cannot sustain.  

More care is needed with the language of ‘aspiration’, which has become synonymous with wanting home ownership.  Of course many people would like to own their own home if they can afford it, but the aspirational classes may well give higher priority in future to getting their children through college and protecting their retirement.

These are real challenges not just for Grant Shapps but also for Labour’s housing policy review when it gets under way.  It would be nice if a new consensus was emerging that enabled serious long term policy options to be discussed rationally, but I suspect the odds are against.