We’ve had right to buy – how about right to rent? David Alexander comment

When I attended school, probably no more than 20 per cent of my classmates lived with their parents in a house that was owner-occupied. The vast majority – myself included – were domiciled in a council house.

Thursday, 17th September 2020, 7:30 am
Renting's flexibility is likely to become even more important in a post-pandemic UK, says Alexander. Picture: Pixabay.

Back then, most local authority tenants were happy with their lot. First of all rents were low, meaning the difference between the cost of renting and buying was infinitely greater than today, which gave rise to the nickname “Spam Valley” for newly-constructed private estates.

Not only were rents low, but they included the cost of repairs and maintenance, although I seem to remember the council properties of the time having been quite well-constructed. Residents also had security of tenure and if they wanted to move house (either to upsize, downsize or if they did not get along with the folk next door), they could arrange a transfer with another council tenant within their own locality or – if changing jobs, for example – somewhere in another part of the county.

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This contradicted the complaint by the Conservatives that council housing deterred upward mobility, although Tories were probably on firmer ground when they described low rents as vote-buying by councils (which in West-Central Scotland were invariably Labour-controlled).

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Several decades later, the situation has been turned on its head. If the statistics are correct, a large majority of today’s schoolchildren live in owner-occupied homes and those whose parents rent (either from a local authority or privately) are in the minority. This is partly due to the sale of council houses, but it goes beyond that. Owner-occupation is now a nationwide aspiration which just did not exist (or at least not nearly to the same extent) in Scotland back in the 1960s and 70s.

While lack of affordable social housing is one reason for the fall in renting, the current generation seems much more prepared than those before them, to save for a deposit so they can afford to pay a mortgage. While this is to be applauded, it would be wrong to infer that tenants are necessarily one of the “left behind”.

While owner-occupation as a percentage of total housing stock has risen in Scotland over several decades, the level of increase is slowing and may one day be put in reverse. There are both negative and positive reasons for this. Some people are renting because they cannot afford a mortgage and are unlikely ever to do so.

The obvious answer is more social housing. Conversely, renting has become a lifestyle choice among many others. This was given a boost in Scotland by the “no fault evictions” legislation, which reduced the circumstances whereby properties could be repossessed, something initially of great concern to rental professionals.

Flexibility

We feared this would make it harder to evict rogue tenants – until it dawned that the legal rigmarole would be no greater than under the old system. However, giving law-abiding tenants – who make up the vast majority – greater security without commitment to long leases has enhanced their flexibility.

Always one of the big pluses of renting over buying, flexibility is likely to become even more important in a post-pandemic UK when securing a job may be increasingly dependent on one’s upward mobility. Landlords in England now seem to be experiencing great angst, lest Westminster introduce similar legislation already enacted by Holyrood.

The “no fault evictions” system is not perfect, but the glass should be looked at as half full rather than half empty. Scotland has moved greatly towards a European-style private rental system and it would do England no harm to follow. Another benefit is that greater security of tenure would attract more families to renting.

This would lead to a new wave of house- and flat-building that would boost the economy and benefit wider society. This, of course, need not deter those preferring owner-occupation. What it would do is give people the same real choice of housing tenure that our Continental cousins have long taken for granted.

David Alexander is MD of DJ Alexander

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