Back to Blog

Posted: 01.07.24

Race for Downing Street: What’s in it for the renters?

Labour’s manifesto must be the most eagerly awaited political document in recent times.

harriet-shone-6683fabad3dab.jpg (original)

With Conservative Prime Minister after Conservative Prime Minister (after Conservative Prime Minister) unable to tackle the real problems Britain faces, we’ve all felt in our bones that change is likely to come the next time the electorate is larger than the few thousands of people in possession of a Conservative Party membership card.

But we’ve not been given much to go on when it comes to understanding what a Labour Government might do. The manifesto changes that…to some degree. While it’s not quite as specific as we might like, it does give us a good sense of where this Government-in-waiting wants to go, and it’s understandable that they don’t want to get into the weeds before they’ve opened Pandora’s Box at the Treasury.

Housing, however, is surprisingly low on the list of priorities. While the housing crisis is acknowledged as “one of the biggest barriers to growth”, it is only described as such in the eighth section of a chapter entitled “Kickstart economic growth”. It comes after things like “boosting investment”, “business taxation”, and “economic infrastructure”. Housing is always positioned as a necessary factor for economic growth, rather than a benefit in and of itself.

Most interestingly, when we do get to housing, the first sentence centres homeownership, describing it as a “dream” now out of reach for many. Moreover, the only oblique reference to housing in the five ‘First Steps’ at the start of the manifesto is to keeping mortgages “as low as possible” (which, don’t get me wrong, yes please). It appears Labour’s entire housing policy is centred on helping people to buy homes, alongside commitments to build homes for social rent – without much detail as to how this will be achieved.

There is no reference to the millions of people in privately rented homes at all. As a reminder, in 2021-22, it was estimated that private renters comprised 19% of all English households, and in London make up the largest group of voters.

Are we to assume that Labour’s plan for these people is to help them to buy? If that’s the case, this is about the most ambitious housing policy we’ve seen since the post-war years – but without the massive investment in state-funded housebuilding that would be needed to make it a reality. Building enough for-sale homes to accommodate the 4.6 million currently living in rented properties, those young adults living with family because they can’t afford to rent, and those teenagers about to become young adults, is a lot to ask for in one Parliament.

There is some detail here which folks will welcome – I certainly would have liked to benefit from “a permanent, comprehensive mortgage guarantee scheme” when I scraped together the money to buy in 2019. Planning reform is desperately needed, as is a more sensible discussion about the Green Belt. Fellow Londoners will probably enjoy the dig at “the farce of entire developments being sold off to international investors before houses are even built” as the sale of new homes abroad is a looked on with frustration by many Londoners desperate to buy.

But I am left wondering, what is in here for the renters? The people who need to live within commuting distance of their work (see the recent FT piece about low productivity in London, hardly surprising when you consider spiralling average commute times) but will never scrape together the average deposit of more than £50k (or a whacking £115k if you’re in London), or may prefer to rent as it provides the flexibilities they want.

Although not in the manifesto, Deputy Labour Leader Angela Rayner has announced some reforms for renters. Predominantly focused on tackling unscrupulous landlords from ripping off their tenants, there are some strong words about addressing poor conditions with new legal protections, capping upfront deposits, banning Section 21 so-called ‘no-fault evictions’ (the primary cause of homelessness), and driving down energy bills through investment in green energy which will save renters money (eventually). Most of this would have likely already happened if the Tory backbenches (some of whom were landlords) hadn’t blocked the previous Government’s Renters’ Reform Bill. All Rayner has to do is blow the dust off the previous bill.

Rayner acknowledged that the ultimate solution to sky-high rents is to build more homes and points to Labour’s ambition to build 1.5 million new homes over the next Parliament to address the “failing private rented sector”. It’s unclear how this would fix anything for people renting right now as they would be unlikely to qualify for new social housing (those in temporary accommodation and on social housing lists are quite enough of a challenge for councils to meet). They’d be almost equally unlikely to be able to raise the funds to buy a new home built in this time. Unless the Government plans to invest in – or encourage investment in - the private rented sector, or reform planning to incentivise institutionally backed ‘Build-to-Rent’ schemes, renters will continue to struggle in densely populated areas across the UK. That said, improved standards are a welcome step – and one the Conservative Government spectacularly failed to deliver on despite their own 2019 manifesto promise.

Any Government simply cannot promise renters an affordable home to buy that suits their needs and allows them to continue propping up the UK’s floundering economy. Evidently Labour hasn’t put too much thought into how they could be helped, beyond delivering on old Conservative promises. Either that or they are planning to ‘Houdini’ a new housing policy once they’ve won the keys to Downing Street.