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Private rented housing: the rent control debate

Published Friday, February 15, 2019

Rents on most new private rented tenancies created after 15 January 1989 were deregulated in England. Affordability pressures in areas of high housing demand have given rise to calls for a return to regulation. The focus has been on rent stabilisation rather than setting rent ceilings. This briefing paper provides an overview of the debate around rent control/regulation and includes some information on a small selection of international rent regimes.

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The UK's second largest tenure

The private rented sector overtook social housing as the UK’s second largest tenure in 2011-12. There are estimated 4.5 million households renting privately– around 20% of all households – according to the 2017-18 English Housing Survey. The proportion of households with children living in the sector has increased. The survey also found that private renters spend a greater proportion of their household income on their housing costs than social renters.

After 1989, private sector rents in most of the UK were deregulated on newly created tenancies. This has remained the case in England and Wales, but devolution of housing policy has led to different approaches in Scotland and Northern Ireland. Rent deregulation is attributed with contributing to the growth of the private rented sector after 1989 – other factors include the removal of long-term security of tenure and the availability of buy-to-let mortgages.

A separate Library briefing paper: A short history of rent control contains information on the history of rent control in the UK.

Deregulation - Housing Benefit will 'take the strain'

Despite claims that Housing Benefit would “take the strain” of increased rent levels following deregulation, in 2010 the Coalition Government identified a need to address “ballooning” expenditure on Housing Benefit. In 2013 the Department for Work and Pensions estimated that £2.9 billion (33%) of private sector Housing Benefit expenditure in 2010/11 could be attributed to real terms rent growth over the previous ten years.

An increased focus on affordability

There is an increased focus on the affordability of private rented housing for lower income groups, particularly in high housing demand areas such as London and the south east. In 2017-18, the median rent for a two-bed property in London was around half the monthly salary of a London resident working full-time. In England as a whole, the proportion was 26%.

The ending of an assured shorthold tenancy (AST) was given as the reason for a homeless application in 27% of cases in England over 2017/18. Not all of these terminations will have been related to affordability but the authors of Homelessness monitor England 2018 identified a link with Local Housing Allowance rates:

Most local authority survey participants attributed this trend to the growing displacement of low income tenants in pressured markets, reflecting their declining ability to compete with higher income groups due to progressively tightening Local Housing Allowance restrictions.

The English Housing Survey: Private Rented Sector 2016-17 recorded that 69% of private renters found it “easy” to pay their rent; 9% were in arrears – no difference was recorded in the prevalence of arrears between private renters in London and the rest of England. Indeed, private renters were found to be less likely to be in arrears than social renters.

Governments since 2010 have sought to reduce Housing Benefit expenditure by introducing several restrictions on eligibility, and by freezing Local Housing Allowance (LHA) rates (with some flexibility in the most expensive areas) for four years from April 2016. In their 2018 report, Rugg and Rhodes say the LHA “constitutes an increasingly stringent mix of both first and second generation rent control.”

Taken together, these factors have resulted in rent control returning to the political agenda. In the main, debate has focused on rent regulation during the term of a tenancy, rather than controls that would restrict rent levels at the outset of a tenancy.

Calls for predictable rent increases

The Coalition Government published a model tenancy agreement which landlords can use to offer longer tenancies with more predictable rent increases. The current Government consulted on Overcoming the barriers to longer tenancies in the private rented sector in 2018. The consultation included a proposed model designed to “give tenants certainty over rent.” Responses are being analysed.

Shelter is arguing for a “stable rental contract” of five years during which annual rent increases would be index-linked, e.g. to the Consumer Price Index (CPI). The Labour Party’s 2017 Manifesto said: “Labour will make new three-year tenancies the norm, with an inflation cap on rent rises”. Generation Rent would go further and has referred to setting a maximum rent based on Council Tax bands “with a monthly maximum rent amounting to half of the annual council tax band for a home.”

Not surprisingly, there is substantial opposition amongst landlords, both individuals and institutional investors and their representative bodies, to interventions which would restrict rents both at the start of, and during the term of a tenancy. It is argued that market intervention would result in landlords withdrawing investment, both in terms of new supply and upkeep of the existing stock.

Emeritus Professor Christine Whitehead and Peter Williams, in Assessing the evidence on Rent Control from an International Perspective (October 2018) point out that the impact of rent control will depend on several factors:

...in reality the impact of rent control depends on its form and economic context (notably inflation and the costs of delivery) plus crucially the nature of the welfare system in place.

They conclude:

...the PRS is a key part of the solution to UK housing problems and this requires a more positive stance towards the sector. The focus for reform should be on putting in place a system which allows indefinite tenancies, and which imposes a degree of rent stabilisation alongside a much better enforcement system which tackles both poor landlords and tenants.

International comparisons

Comparisons are frequently drawn with different rent regulation regimes operated elsewhere in Europe. When seeking to learn lessons from alternative regimes it is important to bear in mind that the private rented sector in the UK is not directly comparable to that in, for example, France, Germany and Switzerland, where a much greater proportion of the population sees private renting as the ‘normal’ choice of tenure.

Commons Briefing papers SN06760

Authors: Wendy Wilson; Cassie Barton

Topics: Housing, Private rented housing

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