My Edinburgh Central constituency is only three miles across, but the best guess from the Scottish Government’s statisticians is that as many as 30,000 people live in it in households where they pay rent to a private landlord. A great many are young, such as those drawn to the city by work opportunities but unable to afford any other form of housing. Families have been increasingly finding themselves in the same situation due to the economic troubles since 2008. Even with the recession the underlying trend for a decade has been for more and more people to rent. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation’s authoritative estimate now is that the number of people under 30 across the UK renting from private landlords will almost triple by 2020 to 3.7 million.
For the whole of the 1990s and 2000s rising house prices were spoken of as if they were a sign of success. Yet as going rates for property rose faster than incomes it made home ownership more and more unaffordable to those that did not already have it or stand to inherit it. Renting became the default, but a demand for rent that was being pressed ever upwards and a supply that was by its nature much more limited led to an imbalance. Faced with that imbalance there wasn’t a chance that a free market could operate successfully.
So the stories now mount of terrible landlords or particularly greedy letting agencies – and when a roof over your head is such a basic need either of these can blight a day-to-day life. Yet experience from other countries in Europe shows that healthy and functioning private rented sectors are possible on scales even larger than our own, and that they are compatible with fundamentally much more equitable societies than our own as well.
There is now a desperate need for a collective voice for tenants. People who rent need to us at know who to turn to for advice, and a government committed to fundamental reform – and I believe the Scottish Government is – needs to know there is a place they can go to hear their voices and experiences directly. Shelter is a fine organisation, but its image is that of a homelessness charity, and moreover it is not structured as a community-led body.
At a local level EPTAG represents the first of what I desperately hope may become a common sight – a group of committed people who have come together to work in common cause. At the EPTAG public meeting in March the impression I took from audience members was an overwhelming sense of relief that they weren’t alone. In Parliament I am pushing for regulatory reform and meanwhile in the city I am eager to help EPTAG in any way I can. Empowering and encouraging tenants when faced with irresponsible landlords is the first step in bringing the system back into something like a balance.
Written by Marco Biagi, an SNP MSP, and a member of the Cross-Party Group in the Scottish Parliament on Housing.