In Britain today 4.5m households are renting in the private sector. An increasing number are young adults and families with children. 18% of homes are privately rented. In Newcastle, with over 22,000 private renters, it’s more than double what it was in the 1980s.
Tenant rents are high. Across England private landlords charge an average monthly rent of £650. London had the highest median monthly rent, at £1,453! In the North East it’s £475 to £550 for a two-bedroomed ‘’Tyneside flat’’. According to the campaign group Generation Rent, three out 10 of privately rented homes are classed as ‘’non-decent, a far worse figure than for owner-occupied homes and social housing. Little wonder that affordable housing has topped the policy agenda.
But private renting isn’t a new phenomenon. At the turn of the 20th century the dominant housing tenure was made up of private landlords renting for profit. Tenants had few rights. Conditions were appalling. On Tyneside housing conditions were, in many respects, the worst in the country and not that different from 1850!
Lack of town planning and inadequate housing laws gave the opportunity for unscrupulous landlords to throw up low quality, insanitary and damp homes which were rented out to the poorer groups in society. During World War One the situation was so dire for working people and their families that a number of rent strikes took place, led by women in Glasgow. The Government passed the 1915 Rent Act which laid down rent controls on private landlords. Nine years later tenants got modest security from eviction. Throughout the inter-war period the private rented sector experienced slow decline.
One result of this legal change was that many landlords refused to invest in their properties as a way of maintaining high profits. True, rents were cheaper in 1919-1938, but the condition of homes declined with overcrowding a big problem across the industrial heartlands of Durham, Tyneside and south-east Northumberland.
Despite the growth of council housing and owner-occupation, the post war Conservative government recognised the demise of the private rented sector and brought in the Rent Act 1957 which removed rent controls. Yet as the social policy academic, Norman Ginsburg notes, this didn’t reinvigorate the private rented sector as there were no tax breaks or subsidies. Several landlords sold up when the properties became vacant.
But the change in law unleashed ‘Rachmanism’ – a new breed of aggressive landlord like Peter Rachman who manipulated housing regulations in such a way to increase rents massively and winkle out decent tenants. By 1965 the Labour government increased security of tenants in unfurnished dwellings and introduced ‘fair rents’. By 1974, security was extended to furnished accommodation.
Conservative attempts to support private landlords mean that in the eighties newer, looser forms of tenancy could be agreed between landlord and tenants, which weakened tenant rights.
However, by 1988, private rented homes had become almost irrelevant to the housing needs of the majority of the population, as it had been replaced by council, housing association and owner occupancy. By 1990 64% of households owned their homes and 25% were in social housing.
Conservative administrations were ideologically committed to reducing the role of local authorities as housing providers and were strongly in favour of the ‘free market’. Mrs Thatcher as PM saw the reintroduction of private rented housing as an alternative to council homes.
In 1988 a new Housing Act was passed bringing in a raft of measures designed to undermine council provided housing and to build up alternatives. One feature of this was the repeal of rent controls, so that private landlords could, once again, be enticed back into providing properties to let. In 1989 landlords could access local authority grants for the repair and modernisation of houses.
In the second decade of the 21st century the private rented market operates to meet two very different type of housing need. At one end of the spectrum are the properties rented to the well-off professionals, who seek high-quality, flexible homes in prestige neighbourhoods such as Ponteland’s Darras Hall and Newcastle’s Quayside .At the other end are those who are either too poor or are on average £24k salaries to get a mortgage, or are simply unable to obtain social homes because of their scarcity.
The number of people privately renting in England rose by a staggering 121% between 1996 and 2016. In 2017, almost half (46%) of 16 to 34-year olds were privately renting, up from 21% in 1997. Too much of it is sub-standard ‘’with thousands of renters living in homes unfit for human habitation’’.
What most young people want today is an affordable, warm, dry and decent home either to rent or buy. The challenge for Labour is to provide it while re-introducing rent controls in the UK private rental service which works well in most European cities.