Cameron makes it up

If Ed Miliband had said anything as ludicrous as David Cameron’s claim that private rented sector rents are going down he would have been all over the news facing demands that he apologise with detailed analysis by pundits of the figures that show he is wrong.

In response to a question by Joan Ruddock MP, Cameron had the nerve to claim that the housing benefit reforms were bringing rent levels down: “what we’ve seen so far, as housing benefit has been reformed and reduced, is that actually we have seen rent levels come down. So we’ve stopped ripping off the taxpayer.”

Cameron’s statement was contradicted by everyone who has ever done any work on private sector rents.  Chartered Institute of Housing quoted National Valuation Office Agency data showing that LHA baseline rates, which are based on market rents, have increased or stayed the same in 853 out of 960 local authority areas since March 2011.

However the apparent misleading of Parliament never made it big in the mainstream news.  The fact is that Cameron gets away with saying things that aren’t true and gets an easy ride from the media.  No 10 set out the case for the defence.  They told Inside Housing “We are hearing of cases where in return for direct payments to landlords our reforms are beginning to work” but, as IH notes, the spokesperson “was not able to provide numbers to back up the claim, saying that the Government will publish data on the impact of LHA reforms later in the year”.

If Miliband had tried such a pathetic explanation as that deployed by No 10  – “we’ll let you know in a few months” – he would have been ripped to shreds.  “Hearing of cases”?  What cases, where, how many, publish the data!

It is interesting, though, that commentary on private sector rents now often includes reference to Ken Livingstone’s idea of the London Living Rent, even if it is often misunderstood.  Ken is seeking to open up the debate about rents by setting a benchmark – after due research – for the proportion of income that should reasonably be taken by rent if households are to retain sufficient income to meet their other needs.  As the idea develops it should put pressure on social landlords who are beginning to charge excessive rents under this Government’s policies, but also kick off a debate about how to exert an element of control over the private sector as well.

The countries with the most successful private rented sectors have a stronger measure of rent control than we do, and better security of tenure as well – but it is difficult to work out how we get from where we are to where they are.

Apart from saving cash, which they look increasingly unlikely to do, the argument deployed most frequently by Iain Duncan Smith and Lord Freud, and repeated by Grant Shapps, was that the HB changes would bring down rents.  It’s how markets work, they explained.  We argued at the time that this was nonsense economics: the policies would do nothing to bring rents generally down as there was excess demand in the system, but would put upward pressure on rents in the lower end of the market as more people chased fewer affordable homes.

Labour Housing spokesperson Jack Dromey MP has been chasing Cameron over his mis-claim, but it would be good to see it feature in a future PMQs so that Labour nationally can show, as Ken Livingstone is doing in London, that someone will stand up for private tenants on low incomes.

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