Regardless of what happens over the next eight weeks, or even the next five years, this General Election will be considered “the Brexit Election”. Enough column inches to reach around the planet will be devoted to Brexit, and the role of the EU, at this election.
One of the reasons why Brexit is so emotive is that it speaks to each of our ideas of the place where we live, of the kind of place we want to live, and of the kind of relationships we want to have with people that we live next to.
The irony, of course, is that with all the focus on Brexit one of the most pressing issues for a generation which concerns exactly those same issues is largely being left out of the conversation: the housing crisis.
No one would argue that there isn’t a problem with housing in the UK – and everyone agrees that the solution is to build more houses. Where they should be built is a slightly more contentious topic. But what has been consistently lacking is a clear plan on how this will be delivered and how to deal with the range of problems affecting people now.
In the last ten years, the landscape of the British housing market has changed dramatically. Nearly twice as many people today live in private rented accommodation than they did ten years ago. That means close to one-in-five British people today live in privately rented accommodation.
While renting used to be a short-term stop gap before buying a home, there are now many people who will rent for most of their lives. This makes it especially important that the sector is suitably professional and offers the stability and affordability that renters need.
Professionalising the private rented sector is long overdue. Whilst the majority of landlords provide a good service to their tenants, a lack of regulation means that a small minority take advantage of those who are powerless to object to poor conditions or rip-off rents. The fear of eviction for raising complaints can trump everything, especially if the high upfront costs of moving home are a barrier and threaten homelessness. Tenants also worry landlords will use any excuse to evict them in order to get higher rents.
There are simple changes that can and should be made that will have a huge impact on vulnerable tenants and will not pose a significant burden on landlords who already do the right thing. For example, compulsory electrical safety checks which Liberal Democrats pushed for in Baroness Grender’s recent Renters’ Rights Bill are a very minor inconvenience given compulsory gas checks are already in place, and yet could save many of the 350,000 injuries from electrical contact every year.
Liberal Democrats are quite clear: we want a rental market that is fair for tenants and fair for landlords. We want to clamp down on irresponsible or ‘rogue’ landlords while allowing those landlords who do the right thing to get on and run their businesses in a way which works for them.
So whilst we can and should take all possible steps to ensure that tenants are well-treated by their landlords and that the houses they rent are of appropriate standard, we must also make sure that landlords don’t get taken for a ride by their tenants. The arrival of systems that operate like ‘TripAdvisor for renting’ should be welcomed for giving both parties to the rental agreement a clearer idea of who they’re working with.
We must also ensure that any economic shocks caused by Brexit are minimised. Inflation has already been triggered by the decision to leave the EU, and if persistently high inflation leads to potential interest rises, we could see the cost of mortgages jump with major consequences for landlords. Likewise, any economic headwinds could put tenants who are stretched to pay their rent, into real difficulty. The Liberal Democrats are campaigning to stay in the single market to protect our economy from the brunt of a hard and divisive Brexit. We believe that not only will this help ensure that our economy doesn’t falter, but that the housing crisis doesn’t get worse.
More long-term, we support an increase in solutions like build-to-rent. There is clearly a growing demand for privately rented accommodation, and build-to-rent can in the right circumstances satisfy some of that demand.
The housing crisis is one of the most pressing problems facing the winners of the election on June 8th, but with the Conservative Party consumed by Brexit and in a perpetual state of conflict between various camps within it, I have little hope that they will also be able to take the important steps needed to resolve our housing crisis. The Liberal Democrats are the clear alternative choice at this election, offering a positive vision for the future that will create both a strong economy and a thriving housing market fit for the next generation.