A group of protesters carrying a banner reading "#RentStrike" and lighting flares

House prices and rents are rising. The cost of living is soaring. And residents are already reeling from the last two years of the Covid pandemic. For many, they are facing challenge after challenge. Government ministers could act in so many ways to reduce social inequality, especially in our housing system – and respond to calls for rent controls.

It may have been swept under the carpet by naysayers, but we did have rent controls in this country back in the 1980s. This was a system that had been in place since the First World War. Rent control law tackled profiteering, guaranteed more affordable housing and provided security of tenure. Yet back in 1988, under the deregulation of the market by Thatcher, 70 years of rent controls were scrapped.

Since then, the affordability of housing has ballooned into a crisis, provoked by decades of inaction, made worse by the start of buy-to-lets and the obsession with the market and developer profit. Further schemes by the government such as help to buy have done little to address the growing problem. The government’s current strategy, while mentioning work on social housing landlords and ‘tenant forums’, is more of the same tinkering. Their focus on ‘building our way out of this crisis’ fails to acknowledge that we don’t need more luxury flats or homes – we need more affordable homes.

Far from a fantasy

Rent controls have been long been part of Green Party policy and action is taking place throughout the UK to recognise their importance. The Scottish Greens are leading on this in Scotland as government partners with SNP, and Labour and Plaid Cymru have an agreement in Wales to explore them too. At a local level, Sian Berry’s championing of rent controls forced Sadiq Khan to include them in his London mayoral campaign. Other Labour mayors have supported the idea too. There is no panacea for the market to fix all our woes but taking a more active approach in the housing market will at least ensure that we have some control over outcomes.

Politicians realise that something must change but they also see that the public support this too. A YouGov poll last year found that almost three quarters of people support the idea, only 8% against and this was even greater than a previous poll in 2015 when 60% supported it, still a large majority.

Add in the growing power of renter’s and tenant’s unions, as well as campaign groups speaking out in favour of rent controls and it is clear that the will is there for change.

Rent controls are not a fantasy. They have worked in many places and have been fundamental to their wider strategies of making a place more liveable and enhancing the local economic policy.

Why we need Government action

When people are spending a majority of their income on rent and unable to save for a deposit, there is no way of denying that the system is broken. There’s a domino effect. Those living and renting in the city have limited spending power, with knock-on effects for the local economy. It becomes impossible to save for a deposit; sooner or later renters are forced to move away from the city and often away from their families and friends. Transience and an exodus of families has an impact on everything from community cohesion to school funding.

The government talk about ‘levelling up’ – but without securing affordable housing, they won’t get far. That’s why in March, I was delighted that Councillors in Brighton & Hove agreed to join with us, calling on government for rent control powers – or to allow us to pilot the idea.

The government’s approach to housing doesn’t fill me with confidence they will respond.  This is why I hope all Greens can support campaigns for rent controls both national and local. In Brighton & Hove, we will keep up the pressure. We may not get powers to act from government, but we are developing our own plans within our remit. We are looking on developing an ethical lettings agency and a ‘Good Landlord’ scheme. But if we are ever to address the real housing crisis – we need significant action from Number 10.

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Image credit: Alisdare Hickson – Creative Commons