We Ask Housing Minister Gavin Barwell What The Government’s Housing Announcement *Actually* Mean For Renters

Is the housing white paper actually going to do anything or is it too little, too late?

We Ask Housing Minister Gavin Barwell What The Government's Housing Announcement *Actually* Mean For Renters

by Vicky Spratt |
Published on

Housing is one of, if not the biggest issues facing young people in England today (you know, aside from Brexit but we won’t bother you with any more about that right now). Today, the government released a policy document entitled ‘Fixing Our Broken Housing Market’, its much-anticipated housing white paper (aka a very long policy document). For the first time since, well, pretty much ever, they addressed the fact that this country’s housing market is fundamentally ‘broken’.

For millennials, or ‘Generation Rent’ as older commentators have rather fetchingly labelled us, this is welcome news, at least in so much as someone is finally accepting the scale of the problem. The Debrief has it on good authority that until very recently ministers were not allowed to use the term ‘housing crisis’ while many people under the age of 30 have already accepted that they may never own their own home.

Speaking in the House of Commons this afternoon, the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, Sajid Javid, said that home ownership has become a ‘distant dream’ for many people. He also acknowledged that house prices had far outstripped incomes and that this country’s housing crisis was a serious ‘barrier to social mobility’.

The Secretary of State said this white paper was for ‘real people’, the ‘young person with their nose pressed against an estate agent’s window’ looking at properties they can’t afford, the first time buyer who will have to save for nearly a quarter of a century just to get a deposit together, and the ‘couple giving half of their combined income to a landlord.’

There’s no doubt that the rhetoric was focussed on renters. Indeed, it signalled a huge shift from the previous government’s Thatcherite focus on home ownership and finally accepted that, for many, this is just, quite simply, not realistic right now. Indeed, it was significant because both the left and the right share the responsibility for allowing a housing problem to become a crisis with little intervention. However, that didn’t stop, former Housing Minister, Grant Shapps, passing the buck for his failure to do anything about it by dismissing today’s proposals…

Today’s announcement was also significant in that it was the first time in recent history that the Conservative party has taken on high house prices and suggested that renters, for whom the barrier to buying is no astronomically high, are actually at the front of their minds.

But, in practice, what does the housing white paper actually mean for people on middle to low incomes, what does it mean for families and young people caught in the private rental sector with nowhere else to go?

On balance, the announcement is positive. It’s a step in the right direction, but it could have gone further. The focus is on developers and local authorities to increase house building. For buyers, it does contain stuff about abuses of leasehold, which is needed. For renters, there is a confirmation that the letting fees ban is going to happen and talk of ‘making renting fairer for tenants’. The government wants to ‘encourage investors’ to build more homes for ‘affordable’ private rent, they also state that they want to see ‘tenants that local authorities place in new affordable properties offered equivalent terms to those in council housing, including a right to buy their home’ which is, undoubtedly, a step forwards for renters on low incomes. They have also announced that they will ‘encourage family-friendly tenancies’ i.e. longer tenancies of three or more years, which is good news for renters. However, some may feel that this falls short and that the state of the private rental market is now such that this should be enforced alongside a letting fees ban (announced following The Debrief’s campaign to Make Renting Fair).

The white paper also included data on how house prices compare to earnings across the country:

It’s hard not to feel that today’s white paper reads like something that should have been published five years ago, but our then government refused to acknowledge that this country was well on the way to becoming a nation of renters, instead tinkering around the edges with help to buy which, the figures show, by and large, helped those who were already reasonably well off. According to the Resolution Foundation, the median household income of those who benefitted from the Help to Buy loan between 2013 and 2016 was £43,500 a year, the national median is £33,082.

Going forward the government needs to ensure that policies help more than just those on above average incomes. The detail on ‘affordable rents’ in the housing white paper still feels like it’s somewhat missing the point. If you rent in England you know all to well that the cost of your housing is rising faster than your income, we need rental properties which cost no more than a third of average incomes, not homes which will be let at ‘no more than 80% of the market rent’when the market is so fundamentally broken. Who is that affordable for?

Ahead of the announcement, The Debrief spoke to Housing Minister Gavin Barwell. We asked him how he sees the housing situation of an average twenty-five years old in twenty-five years’ time? He hopes ‘that those of them who want to own their own home will be able to do so by that point, hopefully even before then.’

Does he agree that today’s announcement is a shift away from previous governments which finally accepts that renting is becoming the new normal? ‘I think there are some people who are always going to struggle to own their own home’ he told The Debrief, ‘and I think there are some people who can’t do so right now but want to do so in the future. I also think there are some people who don’t want to own and prefer the flexibility that comes from renting. I think our job, as a government, is to make sure that our housing policy caters to all of those groups of people.’

And, what does the Housing Minister say to those who argue that today’s white paper is a case of ‘too little, too late’? ‘Well, I can’t do anything about the too late’ the minister told The Debrief, ‘I think it’s true that for thirty or forty years, governments of all colours have failed to build enough homes and that’s what has got us in the mess we’re in now…all I can do is try and get us out of the mess. So, I suppose the charge I have to answer to is “is it too little” – I don’t think that’s true. I’m proud of the package we’ve put together. I think I have to be honest with people that it’s going to take time to solve the problem. There is no magic wand. I wish I could cast some kind of spell and make housing affordable for everybody over night but I can’t do that and I think that when you read the white paper you will see that it's trying to address the problem of why we don’t build enough homes from every angle. And that its also recognising that even if we do succeed in getting house building up significantly it’s going to take time before that feeds though into affordability in the market and, therefore, in the short term to medium term we are going to continue to need to help people that are experiencing the market as it is right now.’

Progress is going to be slow, and long-term changes will take time. But, at least renters are no longer being ignored by politicians. The government is no longer falling back on the old Tory adage that the ‘market will sort itself out’, they acknowledge that the market is broken. There’s a way to go but renters can finally feel change is on the horizon. The government’s intentions are good, how this filters down into actions remains to be seen.

Today the government has outlined proposals on house building and tentative reform of private renting. However, time will tell whether they will go far enough to deliver the fundamental reform at the heart of our rental market which is so very urgently needed by the 4.3million people currently renting in this England (is it time to look at licensing landlords?). This announcement is a positive step in the right direction and, if nothing else, the shift in rhetoric signals a huge change in its own right but, this is no panacea.

Like this? You might also be interested in:

Is The Way We Rent In England About To Change Forever?

The Reality Of Renting In London

Letting Agency Fees Have Been Banned!

Follow Vicky on Twitter @Victoria_Spratt

This article originally appeared on The Debrief.

Just so you know, whilst we may receive a commission or other compensation from the links on this website, we never allow this to influence product selections - read why you should trust us