Landmark review slams successive governments for ‘unquestioning’ and ‘uncoordinated’ policy on private renting

A landmark review of the private rented sector in England by academics at the University of York has criticised successive governments for poor policy-making and a lack of strategy that is failing millions of tenants.

Released today, The Evolving Private Rented Sector: its Contribution and Potential, funded by the Nationwide Foundation, is a detailed, independent analysis of who lives in private rented housing, how their needs are being met and the impact of policy interventions over the last ten years.

It comes a decade after Dr Julie Rugg and David Rhodes published their original review of the private rented sector – the first to look in detail at how it functioned.

The main findings in today’s review include:

  • Current regulation of the sector is ‘confused and contradictory’ and ‘failing at multiple levels’. Opportunities for linkage and simplification are being missed, with tenants and landlords unsure of their rights and responsibilities.
  • Poor conditions are a problem at both ends of the market – one in five homes let at the top 20% of rents are non-decent, and one in three let at the bottom 20%. Conditions get worse the longer tenants are in their property, indicating that poor property management rather than old housing stock is the root cause.
  • Changes to welfare reform are creating a ‘slum tenure’ at the bottom end of the market as more tenants are unable to afford to meet their current rent levels or find accommodation without the help of statutory or third sector agencies.
  • Policy interventions – such as Build to Rent – are increasingly focused on helping higher and middle-income renters priced out of ownership, with little or no help for those on low incomes.

The review concludes that no government has been clear on the function of renting within the housing market and as a result, interventions have been piecemeal and poorly targeted.

Julie Rugg, co-author of the report and Senior Research Fellow at the University of York’s Centre for Housing Policy said: “Since our first review was published, declining home ownership and a shortage of social rented homes have led to a surge in the number of people privately renting – particularly families with young children. Unfortunately, in its current form the private rental market isn’t providing a suitable alternative, and in the absence of an overarching vision from any government we’ve seen reams of policies and regulations which are not joined up or thought through. We need to see a fundamental rethink of the role that private renting plays in our housing market and a comprehensive strategy to ensure it meets the needs of every renter.”

Leigh Pearce, Chief Executive of the Nationwide Foundation, the charity that funded the review, said:  “The private rented sector too often fails to provide decent and affordable homes, particularly for those on low incomes. It’s time for the government to end piecemeal policymaking and instead to develop a strategy for the private rented sector that makes it clear what role the sector plays in the wider housing market. We hope this review will be the start of a cross-party and cross-stakeholder conversation.”

The review calls for the introduction of a landlord and letting agent register, and suggests a new ‘Property MOT’ as a way to bring together and simplify existing regulation and help drive up property standards in rented homes.

The Property MOT would operate in a similar way to that which exists for cars: all properties let for residential purposes would be required to undergo an annual standardised inspection. It would bring together current requirements such as electrical and gas safety certificates and energy efficiency reports, but also include a new assessment according to a basic minimum standard.

The MOT test would be conducted by independent inspectors and would be a tax-deductible business cost for landlords.

Julie Rugg said: “There is currently no minimum standard that properties have to meet before they are let. Over a million renters are putting up with damp, disrepair and sometimes life-threatening hazards. A Property MOT would give people confidence before they sign a tenancy that the property is fit for purpose, and that standards won’t lapse in the future, while for landlords, it offers greater clarity and protection against prosecution. This proposal is just one way in which existing legislation can be simplified to make the sector work better for everyone.”