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Sun 17 November 2019
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Tom Cordell on why the Mayor of London’s plans to control private rents in the capital could be the revolution required to break through the housing crisis.


For decades, right-wing think tanks and their media echo chamber have stood up for landlords against any suggestion that housing rents should be controlled.

Few scream louder than the rich facing the loss of even a fragment of their wealth. And so, with a hint of menace, the property industry uses economic theory to insist that any form of rent controls will force landlords to cut back on repairs or even push them to the point where they stop renting out their properties at all. 

Last week, the Mayor of London rejected this desiccated economic model. Reminding us that economics should follow rather than lead political objectives, he announced a detailed plan to introduce rent controls in the capital. Although it will require the backing of central government to become law, the proposals aim to gradually wind down rental levels across the capital’s private rental sector. 

In the run-up to next year’s mayoral election, the policy is a clear bid for votes from the quarter of Londoners living in rented housing. The appeal to politicians is that,  unlike building new homes, it could be enacted quickly, without apparent cost to the taxpayer. Understandably, the landlord lobby – backed by the mortgage industry that has funded Britain’s ‘buy to let’ explosion – has responded with predictions of doom. 

Yet, the promise of this policy could revolutionise how we live in the city.

The central idea is that, over time, market forces would no longer determine where and how we live. Instead, people would be able to rent good quality homes close to their families and jobs, irrespective of their household income. 

There would be many benefits. We could spend less time commuting, improving our quality of life and reducing our environmental impact. We could live close to those we love, enabling us to care for them when they needed support. We might even be able to work less. 

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But, to realise this potential, there are some longer-term issues that need political action to resolve. First of all, the answer to the landlord lobby’s scaremongering will ultimately require public money. Government must be prepared to buy up housing from any landlords who skimp on repairs or who refuse to rent homes out. This is essentially a return to the policies of the 1960s and 1970s, when local councils took advantage of house prices deflated by low rents to municipalise large parts of the private rental sector – buying it up and turning it into council housing. 

We will also have to think again about how we allocate the limited resource of housing that exists. Today’s private rental market effectively rations housing on the basis of who can pay. It’s not fair, but it does work out who gets to live in it. Any move that reduces rents – making them available to more people – begs the question: how do we decide who gets a home and where?

There are good reasons not to leave this to the whim of the private sector. From the “no Irish, no Blacks” signs of the 1950s to present day landlord discrimination against those on benefits or in precarious employment, prejudice has always shaped who gets to rent a home. Rent reduction needs to be backed by an allocation process that distributes housing it in a fair and transparent way. 

Should a young mother get to live close to her family, in priority over a city worker earning 10 times her income? How would we make sure that housing people close to where they grew up didn’t exclude new arrivals to the city who might have much more urgent housing needs? These are complex problems to resolve, but they also have the potential to rescue ideas of identity and place from the rising tide of nationalism. By reintroducing ideas of equality into our access to housing and the city’s spaces, we can reinforce the bonds that tie mixed societies together.

A rent strike in Glasgow in 1915

Unless it gets the Government’s backing, the Mayor’s plan will remain just pixels on a screen. To enact it, he will need Westminster to give him regional autonomy over housing law. A broader programme of devolution to the regions could, in the long run, help those areas to reboot their regional economies. Any move to create jobs out of London will eventually help Londoners too – attracting workers to places around the country and reducing demand for housing in the capital. Together, they could reshape a national agenda to remake Britain in a way that relates fairness to place. 

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