The Highlands and Islands need rent controls

This post first appeared on the website of the Living Rent Campaign.

John Finnie backs Living Rent Campaign, holding placard reading "It's time for rent controls".The Highlands and Islands is an expensive place to live. You probably know that our big distances mean higher transport costs, and our wilder weather means bigger fuel bills. You could probably guess that our workers’ wages are well below those in the central belt. But it might come as more of a surprise to learn that rents in the Highlands and Islands are well above the Scottish average, and rising faster than anywhere but Glasgow.

According to a study by estate agents Your Move (PDF), the average rent in the private rented sector in the Highlands and Islands run at £563 per month, £14 higher than the national figure. In the last year, our rents have risen by 4.3%, only a fraction behind the 4.6% increase in the Glasgow and Clyde area.

There is a tendency to think of housing pressures as the preserve of overcrowded urban centres or their hastily-built suburban schemes. In fact, the housing crisis here in the Highlands and Islands is as acute as anywhere in the central belt.

Our rents are soaring, driven by buy-to-let and holiday-home speculators for whom houses are first and foremost investments, not homes. The result is greater poverty, greater depopulation, and more desperate tenants forced to accept poor-quality homes or unscrupulous landlords.

We must reverse that trend, so that everyone can expect somewhere safe, secure and affordable to live.

The housing crisis is a complex problem that will have complex solutions, but I believe that a system of rent controls is an essential component of our response.

Rent controls were effectively abolished in the UK by the Thatcher government’s 1988 Housing Acts, but rent controls live on in other countries, including in several cities in the United States. The policy is making a strong comeback, with Berlin the most recent major city to extend its rent controls. A UK opinion poll last December found that 60% support rent controls, and less than 1 in 14 people oppose them (opposition among the Scottish subset of the poll was a virtually negligible 1 in 33).

Here in Scotland, we await the report – due imminently – on the Scottish Government’s second consultation on a “New Tenancy for the Private Sector,” which asked respondents for their view on bringing back rent controls. In the meantime the Scottish Parliament has received a petition, organised by the grassroots Living Rent Campaign and signed by 8,000 people, calling for the reintroduction of rent controls.

The Living Rent Campaign’s proposals not only take on the raw cost of renting, but also the poor quality of much of our housing. This is a particular problem in the Highlands and Islands, where almost half (48%) of private tenants live in fuel poverty, 26% of private rented homes are “lacking modern facilities”, and 13% are “below tolerable standard” – more than twice the Scottish average.

Using a points system similar to that in place in the Netherlands, maximum rents would be lowered for properties that fail housing quality standards, have poor energy efficiency or are awaiting repairs, giving landlords a much-needed financial incentive to make improvements.

Rent controls are by no means enough on their own to solve the housing crisis – and no-one is saying they are. We need to build many, many more council houses; we need secure, indefinite tenancies that allow tenants to put down roots; we need to ban discrimination against prospective tenants on the grounds of their welfare or immigration status; and we need much tougher minimum energy efficiency standards to wipe out fuel poverty – all of which has been proposed by the Scottish Greens, and found at least some support in other parties.

What rent controls will do is make an immediate impact in the lives and expectations of many thousands of tenants. They will reduce the burden on families in hardship, encourage young people back to depopulated communities, and restore sanity to the housing market. Most of all, they will begin the process of reclaiming our houses as homes for people, not for money.

I’m very proud to be one of the first MSPs to put my name to the Living Rent Campaign’s pledge to back rent controls. Please write to your MSPs, your MPs, MEPs and Councillors, and the candidates for the next Scottish Parliament election, asking them to do the same.