Suburbanisation of renters boosts our influence at the ballot box

The growth of private renting in the past decade has given renters more political power, with our new analysis of the census finding that 194 constituencies in England have populations containing 20% or more private renters, up from 114 in 2011.

Whereas previously renters had been relatively concentrated in inner cities, with a large voice in a small number of seats, the search for cheaper rents and family-friendly homes has pulled renters into suburbs and satellite towns of London and other major cities, and as a result our votes affect a larger share of the political map.

However, this increased influence depends on renters registering to vote – we estimate that 1.22m people were not registered to vote anywhere at the 2019 election, 45% of these being private renters.

At the time of the 2021 Census, the private rented sector (PRS) provided accommodation for 4.8m households in England, up by 1.1m in the ten years since the previous Census. This is 21% of households in England.

The 2011 rental market was concentrated in cities, but as renters have settled down but been unable to buy or move into social housing, they have moved out into suburbs and satellite towns.

The most dramatic growth in renting has taken place in suburban England, including the northern and western outskirts of London and the outer reaches of metropolitan areas like Dudley and Oldham.

This geographical spread has a political impact. We estimated the size of the private rented sector in the constituencies proposed at the 2023 boundary review, using both the 2011 and 2021 censuses to track change over time.

Although nationally, the private renter population has increased by 29% in ten years, the number of parliamentary constituencies with 20% or more private renters has increased by 70% to reach 194, 36% of the seats in England.

For example, the new seat of Smethwick has seen its private renter population increase by 6.4 percentage points to reach 21.8% of the population, while the private renter population in Watford has increased by 7.9 percentage points to 27.4%.

The private rented sector is becoming one of the largest tenures in increasing number of seats as well. There has been an 89% increase in the number of seats with 30% or more of the population in private rented homes, from 37 in 2011 to 70 in 2021 (13% of English parliamentary constituencies).

To assess whether renters are ready to use this political power, we looked at the British Election Study and electoral roll data alongside the census. Private renters are more than twice as likely not to be registered as the population as a whole. Private renters are also less likely to be registered to vote after taking into account age, another indicator of political engagement.

Our analysis estimated that 1.22m eligible voters were not registered anywhere for the 2019 election and that 45% of them were private renters. By December 2022, this number had risen to 2.30m missing voters, with a larger share of these likely to be private renters due to more frequent home moves.

The report, Gaining Our Voice: The growing private rented sector and voter registration also finds:

  • areas with high private renter populations were strongly correlated with large falls in the number of people on the electoral roll since the General Election.
  • While students in particular are more likely to be registered elsewhere as well as simply not registered in the first place, other subsets of the private renter population that are under-registered include houses in multiple occupation, converted flats and the 25-34 age range.

Because of this shift it is getting harder for politicians to ignore renters. The renter population continued to grow in the 2010s, but because many of us have been pushed out of city constituencies by high rents and the need for family homes, renters’ political power has grown even more, and could make a difference in many more seats at future elections.

But this new political influence is limited if we aren’t registered to vote in the first place, and it is too easy to fall off the register after a stressful house move. We have mapped the private rented sector to inform our campaign to make sure renters have a political voice, and we hope this work will help others who are working to widen democratic participation.

Explore the data used in the report and find information for your local area in our data hub.

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