All five main UK-wide parties have now published their election manifestos. I took a trawl through them to dig out their plans for renters and the wider housing market.
The Conservatives’ offer on housing is a promise to be the party of home ownership, which might explain why there was nothing in their manifesto for private renters.
There is the promise of 200,000 new Starter Homes which are exclusively for first-time buyers under 40. This might help those younger renters who are keen and able to buy their first home but the fact that these can replace affordable homes contributions for developers is a real worry for the housing market as a whole. We have already spoken of the monumental problems with the Help to Buy ISAs and the extension of the Right to Buy to housing association tenants so I won’t dwell on it here. The positive announcement to double the number of first-time buyers compared to the last 5 years came with no details on how they might do this. They’d need to find around 1 million more and the National Housing Federation estimates that only 200,000 housing association tenants would be able to take up Right to Buy.
There were also some positive announcements on housebuilding, including a £1bn fund to clean up brownfield sites and the aim to double the number of custom-built and self-built homes by 2020 – though they promised this last time and it didn’t happen. The Conservatives also want to build 275,000 affordable homes by 2020, which is a step in the right direction but falls woefully below what is needed (more than twice this).
However, apart from a promise to keep council tax low which will help renters who pay council tax (although in all probability this will be spent on their escalating rent), the Conservatives had nothing to offer renters who are struggling right now.
On energy efficiency, the Conservative Party pledge to insulate 1 million homes actually represents an 80% reduction in the number of energy efficient measures compared to the last Parliament. They have committed to supporting ‘low cost’ measures even though the whole house retrofitting approach delivers a good return on economic growth. This is an inadequate and unambitious approach to reducing and tackling fuel poverty.
The Green Party has the most announcements on the housing sector of any political party, with some really interesting announcements for renters.
Specifically for renters, the Greens would completely reform the private rented sector, introducing a ‘living rent’ tenancy. This would include a 5 year tenancy agreement, smart rent control that caps annual rent increases that links to CPI, security of tenure and local not-for-profit letting agencies whilst abolishing letting fees and any deposit schemes that are insurance-based. However, 'smart' rent controls only limit rent increases and fail to deal with areas where rents are too high, exploitative and unsustainable.
The Greens plan to readdress the balance of power between landlord and tenant through several measures including a mandatory licensing scheme. They would like to make buy to let investment less attractive by removing tax incentives, including mortgage interest relief (this alone they believe will raise £5.8billion a year) and reforming the wear and tear allowance.
They are also committed to raising the tax-free amount under that Rent a Room scheme to £7,250 a year, something which our friends at SpareRoom have campaigned for – opening up spare rooms for those who would be interested in lodging, rather than renting.
More widely, the Greens would have an overhaul of housing benefit so that it would be brought back in line with average market rents – they estimate this will cost £2.3billion a year. This will allow those who are forced into the worst accommodation a bit more of a choice and hopefully improve conditions. The Greens would also abolish the bedroom tax, review the Shared Accommodation Rate and change the definition of affordable rented housing to be linked to local median incomes and not market rents.
More widely on housing, the Greens want to aim for house price stability, citing the growing concern that house prices are rising so much quicker than wages and inflation. Particularly, making buy to let less attractive is welcome news as this will reduce pressure on house prices and help stop first time buyers being outbid by speculators when purchasing their first home. The scrapping of the Help to Buy scheme should help to stop inflating demand and we particularly welcome action on bringing empty homes back into use.
On fuel poverty and energy efficiency, the Green Party have proposed what would be the most ambitious home efficiency programme of any of the parties – effectively eliminating fuel poverty as well as reducing carbon emissions. The Greens would like to see a free nationwide retrofit insulation programme that focuses on fuel poverty with 9 million homes treated and 2 million households brought out of fuel poverty. They would have a Green National Infrastructure programme with £45 billion of investment from public and private sources, including carbon taxes as well as a Green Investment Bank to allow homes to be refurbished up to the Passivhaus ultra-low standard by 2020 – the delivery of which would be done through local authorities.
Labour’s manifesto had some strong commitments for renters, but nothing new: they will make 3 year tenancies the norm, linking these to a ceiling on rent rises (this is not the same as a rent cap). Labour will ban letting agent fees, something we have campaigned for and something that will be a real benefit to private renters. Finally, Labour will create a national register of private landlords, another commitment we have lobbied political parties for. In general, the manifesto on housing was vague on the details for many of its promises.
In terms of housebuilding, Labour would like to build at least 200,000 homes a year by 2020. While this is an improvement on current numbers, it falls very far short of the numbers that we need and we would like to see them be much more ambitious, given the shortfall already facing the country. It also has no commitments on the types of homes these are – what is desperately needed is affordable housing, not more luxury flats for the super-rich.
Labour will create a Futures Home Fund that requires £5bn of the money saved in Help to Buy ISAs to be invested in increasing housing supply – this is an interesting idea but there is little detail on this (as with most of their manifesto). They also will prioritise capital investment for housing in order to build more affordable homes as well as reform the council house financing system. Again, these are, in theory, very positive but there is a real lack of significant detail.
Labour have pledged to deliver 200,000 whole house retrofits per year, delivered street by street by local authorities and community organisations, zero interest loans for a million households and ensuring privately rented homes meet a decency standard which will make a further 3 million households warm. They have also informed our friends at the Energy Bill Revolution that they will make energy efficiency a national infrastructure priority – a welcome commitment.
The Liberal Democrat manifesto had several commitments for renters. Under the Rent to Own scheme, your monthly ‘rent’ payments buy you a stake in the property, and after 30 years you’ll own the home. This does seem to be an interesting Intermediate Housing policy that could really help some renters – but there is a lack of details on what happens if you leave the property early and most likely it won’t be on a scale that has any significant impact.
The Lib Dems also want to change the culture of renting, by encouraging multi-year tenancies with inflation-linked annual rent increase built in, though we doubt that many landlords will implement these voluntarily. More welcome is the Lib Dem commitment to banning letting fees for tenants if the transparency requirements that have been recently introduced do not bringing down fees to affordable levels by the end of 2016.
Even more interestingly, the Lib Dems would extend the use of Rent Repayment Orders to allow tenants to have their rent refunded when a property is found to contain serious risks to health, and withhold rent from landlords who have not carried out court-ordered improvements within a reasonable period of time. This is a brilliant step in the right direction – holding landlords to account for letting out properties in awful conditions. It would be good to have some clarity on what the time period is but overall, this policy is a great way to start to rebalance the power between landlords and tenants.
The party would also introduce a Help to Rent scheme that would provide government-backed tenancy deposit loans for all first-time renters under 30. Whilst we welcome this as it enables those who cannot afford a rental deposit to be able to access the rental market, it does mean that these renters will be accruing additional debt to add to their already exorbitant rents (including an interest rate of approx. 2.5% on the loan).
The manifesto also contain a commitment for a voluntary register for rented property that either landlord or tenant can register the property to, which the Lib Dems say will improve enforcement and tax transparency. With any voluntary scheme, this is highly unlikely – the only landlords who will register their property will already be complying with legislation and even though tenants can register property too – it is unlikely they will register property where they suspect their landlord is behaving unlawfully or unethically for fear of eviction. Any register like this should be mandatory.
The Liberal Democrats would also enable Local Authorities to operate licensing schemes for rental properties where they believe it is needed – this suggests that they disagree with some of the recent legislation on licensing where it was made more difficult for local authorities to enforce widespread licensing.
On housebuilding, the Liberal Democrats have pledged to building 300,000 homes a year, including 10 new Garden Cities and development on unwanted public sector sites. They would review compulsory purchase legislation and improve planning legislation as well as set up a Housing Investment Bank to provide long-term capital for major new settlements. They have set the most ambitious housebuilding target which is very welcome, as is the Housing Investment Bank. They have also pledged to enable Local Authorities to attach planning conditions to new developments to ensure they are occupied, preventing buy to leave empty investments, levy up to 200% council tax on second homes and pilot new planning conditions to ensure local communities benefit from the increased housing supply.
On energy efficiency, the Liberal Democrats pledge to make energy efficiency an infrastructure priority, to use capital funds to invest in home energy efficiency, interest free loans for energy efficiency improvements and to bring all low income homes up to Band C on an Energy Performance Certificate by 2027. They also commit to bringing all social and private rented housing up to EPC Band C by 2027, to insulate 4 million homes by 2020 and to enshrine these targets in a new Green Buildings Act. It would be good to have clarification on whether their 4 million homes target for 2020 will include bringing 2 million low income homes up to EPC Band C but overall these commitments would make excellent progress towards tackling fuel poverty for renters as well as reducing carbon emissions.
The UKIP manifesto had absolutely nothing to offer to renters; their commitments were around supply with some mention of how to limit demand for homes. There aren’t any new or innovative policies in the manifesto, although bringing empty homes back into use and building affordable homes are both positive commitments.
UKIP have no polices to effectively tackle fuel poverty and their proposals would overall be likely to lead to an increase in fuel poverty. They would lead to higher energy bills in the long term due to a continued dependence on fossil fuels and no investment in energy efficiency.
Overall, the manifestos didn’t include any surprise announcements for renters, and most of the details on housing have been overshadowed by the Conservative announcement on the extension of Right to Buy. However, depending on the outcome of the election there might be some positive change for renters and either way, we will continue to campaign for real significant change for renters, building the movement of renters across the country and forcing our politicians to go much further than they currently are.