Norwich City Councillor Samir Jeraj responds to Alyson MacDonald’s The Case Against Landlords.

In the 2006 film Thank You For Smoking, the anti-hero lobbyist for the tobacco industry muses about his motivations “Everyone’s got a morgage to pay” and then concludes that “maybe the world would be a better place if people rented”. In almost any other country in Europe, private renting is better, cheaper and more widely available than in the UK. The problem is not necessarily landlords but the implicit requirement that in order to be a paid up member of society, you need to own your own home. Renting needs to be better, not lesser.

The Thatcherite dream of the property-owning democracy is a far older concept than we generally credit. It essentially goes back to the origins of the debate over democratic participation. During the 1647 Putney Debates, the New Model Army in revolutionary England debated the proposals it would put to parliament. The Debate boiled down to two visions of democracy,

Thomas Rainsborough argued that every (man) has a right to a voice in government:

“For really I think that the poorest hee that is in England hath a life to live, as the greatest hee; and therefore truly, Sr, I think itt clear, that every Man that is to live under a Government ought first by his own Consent to put himself under that Government; and I do think that the poorest man in England is not at all bound in a strict sense to that Government that he hath not had a voice to put Himself under.”

Countering this was the old conservative argument from Henry Ireton that you (men) have to own property to have rights:

“no man hath a right to an interest or share in the disposing of the affairs of the kingdom… that hath not a permanent fixed interest in this kingdom.”

Subsequently, home ownership has always been part of a conservative vision of democratic society. This aspiration has, since the 1970s/80s been funded through expanded credit (debt) and fed the sprial of house prices which has left young people without secure housing. It also played its role in the present financial and banking crises.

There are massive problems in the private-rented sector in the UK. Anyone who has read the excellent ‘Diary of a tenant’ will be able to see in detail and at a personal level the problems faced by any tenant from insecure tenure, damp, and repairs not carried out, to not being allowed to have a cat or other pets. In my own experience as a City Councillor in Norwich, I have seen tenants living in terrible conditions but afraid of taking action for fear of losing their deposit and reference – many are resigned to living like this for a while until they can find something better. Shelter has been running a campaign against rogue landlords and urging local authorities to use their powers to clamp down on sub standard housing, but reforms need to be more wide-ranging.

In Europe, the proportion of private rented housing is as high as 45% (Germany), but generally hovers around 20%. So, if we are to become ‘Generation Rent’, what can we learn from Europe and what can we do about it?

The long list of demands should focus on improving security of tenure so that tenants can’t be turfed out with a months notice, rent price controls, a breakdown of what happens to your rent (how much goes back into investment), and a mediation between landlords and tenants. Most importantly of all, generation rent needs to organise – in Camden the Federation of Private Tenants has a long history of fighting for tenants and improving rights and conditions (it’s funding is now under threat due to cuts from Camden’s Labour-run Council) – we need a national organisation of private tenants to take up our struggle!

About Samir Jeraj

Samir was a Green Party councillor in Norwich from 2008-2012. He now writes on housing, race and London politics.