After spending six months in Singapore for the Financial Times, the worst thing about returning home was doing battle once again with the London rental market.
A frantic house hunt landed me and my partner on the top floor of a semi-detached Brixton house, which the landlord had enterprisingly divided into three apartments. In the three months since moving in, we have had to request 11 separate repairs. On one occasion the lock of our front door broke, leaving us trapped inside for nearly a day. More recently, our balcony door jammed open and, despite the cold and rain, was not fixed for almost three days.
In 2019, I viewed an apartment above a Putney laundromat where the attic bedroom lacked working electricity and the tenant had resolved to live by candlelight. Two months ago, a friend was forced to call in an exterminator days after moving into a rat-infested house in west London.
These are not isolated instances of bad luck. Rather, they are indicative of conditions that are rife across the UK rental market, which grew to represent a fifth of households in the decade up to 2017. At least a quarter of renters are affected by mould, damp or coldness in their homes, according to a survey last year of 3,197 people by housing charity Shelter.
Campaigners say the situation is unlikely to improve any time soon. Rather than urgently introducing stricter regulations, the government is focusing on policies to drive home ownership, an increasingly unrealistic option for many during the cost of living crisis.
Since taking over at the Treasury, Jeremy Hunt has reversed most of the sweeping tax cuts introduced by his predecessor in September. But after scrapping tax breaks for investors and corporations, the chancellor stood by one policy: a stamp duty cut for housebuyers.
Hunt said in his Autumn Statement last month that the tax cut, which will remain in place until at least 2025, would “support the housing market . . . during the period the economy most needs it”. Experts have warned, however, that it will do little to help those “with no bank of mum and dad” on to the property ladder.
Besides a 7 per cent cap on social housing rents, the Autumn Statement “didn’t mention [private] renters at all, which is crazy”, says Anny Cullum, policy officer at tenants’ union ACORN.
Calls to strengthen tenants’ rights have intensified since an inquest that found two-year-old Awaab Ishak had died due to prolonged exposure to mould in his home, owned by the Rochdale Boroughwide Housing association. Housing secretary Michael Gove cut the company’s funding by £1mn in response.
This came months after Gove acknowledged that “too many renters are living in damp, dangerous, cold homes”. More than 2.8mn Britons had been found to be living in houses not fit for the 21st century, he said. In June, his government set out plans for “a fairer private rented sector”, including a ban on no-fault evictions.
The plans, first promised in the government’s 2019 manifesto, were welcomed by Polly Neate, chief executive of Shelter. But, she adds, legislation has been “promised for years” and “we don’t understand what the delay is about”.
Hunt has declared his ambition to emulate “Singaporean efficiency”. Tory ministers have long marvelled at the rapid rise of the former British colony, often hailed as a model of free-market capitalism. But its affluent population is supported by a system that provides 80 per cent of residents with state-funded homes, an idea still seen as unconservative in the UK.
During my short stay in Singapore, people often expressed bemusement at the chaotic state of the UK’s economy and politics. Returning to my cold Brixton flat in the middle of winter, I am chilled by the prospect that living standards for UK renters could deteriorate further.
“People cannot afford their rent. [They are] putting up with very, very poor conditions,” says Neate. “I don’t think the government wants to preside over a big increase in homelessness. But that is what will happen.”