For many years, rent control was considered an out-dated practice from a bygone age, with a history of failure and complications around the world.
In the UK specifically, the various Acts which introduced rent control in the private-rented sector had a dramatic effect on the proportion of households renting from a private landlord. As the chart below illustrates, the sector shrank dramatically after the introduction of controls in the Rent and Mortgage Interest Restrictions Act 1939, and continued to decline as the legislation was tightened through the 1950s, 60s and 70s. It was not until the reforms of the 1980s that the private-rented sector turned the corner.
Even so, the initial pace of change was slow. The modern rented sector only really developed after the enactment of the Housing Act 1996 when the Assured Shorthold Tenancy became the default tenancy and lenders felt secure enough to expand mainstream lending to individuals.
Yet, despite the wealth of evidence to suggest that statutory price capping does far more harm than good to the supply and quality of rentals, it is back on the agenda for some politicians.
The appeal of price controls to politicians is simple. It is a basic concept, easy to understand and able to appeal to a certain group of voters with whom it is often difficult to engage. Unfortunately, while the concept is simple, the practical and economic consequences are incredibly complicated and difficult to model.
Those proposing rent control tend not to consider its impact on the wider society. The use of rent ceilings has been shown, time and time again, to reduce the quality and quantity of property available to rent legitimately, while fuelling the growth of a black market. It wasn’t difficult to find somewhere to rent in the 1980s, but few renters were ever offered a full tenancy, with all the protections that entailed. For good or ill, many properties were let on a “licence to occupy”.
Were a future government to introduce such a policy after the May General Election, the impact would undoubtedly be a reduction in the the number of properties available to rent and the exit from the market of a large number of responsible landlords who simply are not prepared to deal with inevitable reduced income or the higher costs that will follow as service providers, such as mortgage lenders and insurance providers, seek to off-set their risk.
Rents will be held down as politicians – looking to gain votes – will be unwilling to face the wrath of five million private renters. As the cost of renting to the consumer sinks below the natural market rate, artificially kept below the level needed to ensure that the landlord can maintain it properly, and inevitably squeezing profitability out of the equation, people will vote with their feet. Investment will move away towards other markets and assets better able to provide a reasonable return.
Shortage of housing
The impact of this will be felt more widely than simply by those who rent or let. The issue we face in many parts of the country is a shortage of all types of property for people to live in. Rent control will not increase the number of properties; indeed, it will have the opposite effect, driving investment away from these areas and further reinforcing the divide between high and low demand areas, as developers will no longer be able to cover the risk of new projects by selling off-plan to landlords keen to invest in residential property. Unless there is an increase in first-time buyers willing, and – perhaps more crucially – able to buy to compensate, housing development will fall away, further restricting supply and making it even more difficult for those seeking housing, both to rent and to buy.
The policy of rent control has failed whenever it has been introduced; the re-introduction of rent control in the UK will fail and will cause more damage to the housing sector, and to those that need to be housed.
If you’re concerned about the impact this could have on you, enter your question via the survey. The NLA is holding a hustings event, on Monday 2 March, where there will be an opportunity to question policy leaders from all parties. The most popular questions, collected from our survey, will be presented at the event.