Ross Clark Ross Clark

Gove’s ‘war on landlords’ is not going to plan

Credit: Getty images

Levelling up the housing market, it is fair to say, is not quite going according to plan. Rents in the year to February, the Office for National Statistics (ONS), reveals today increased by 9 per cent – the largest rise since the ONS started its rental price index. In some cases, tenants have been complaining of far steeper increases as landlords seek to recover rising mortgage costs. They have been able to get away with jacking up rents because the withdrawal of many landlords from the market has led to a fall in properties available to rent. Over the past year, according to the National Residential Landlords Association (NRLA), 21 per cent of landlords have sold a property and only eight per cent have bought one.

It is easy to see the rationale behind what some have termed Michael Gove’s ‘war on landlords’. Property prices have galloped ahead of earnings over the past generation, to the point that many young people are now unable to do what their parents and grandparents took for granted: get on the property ladder.

In trying to grow home ownership again, the government has made life even more miserable for tenants

Part of the reason behind this is the massive boom in buy-to-let which followed the Thatcher government’s reform of rental laws in 1989. They did away with open-ended tenancies and instead introduced ‘shorthold’ tenancies which can last as little as six months, although more commonly they run for 12 months. Combined with steadily falling interest rates from 1992 onwards, it turned housing into an asset class of interest to global investors. The result? Huge capital gains for some – and a great number of frustrated would-be homebuyers frozen out of the market.

Yet in trying to reverse that and grow home ownership again, the government has – in the short term at least – made life even more miserable for tenants. Two reforms in particular stand out for their role in forcing landlords out of the market and thereby pushing up rents. Firstly, buy-to-let investors are no longer able to claim mortgage interest payments against rental income. At a time of sharply-rising interest rates this has utterly changed the economics of buy to let. It is currently extremely hard, if not impossible, to make a profit on a buy-to-let property bought on a high value-to-loan mortgage. The days of cabbies being able to build up large buy-to-let empires with little starting capital are well and truly over.

The second reform – yet to come into force – is Gove’s move to end ‘no fault’ evictions. This would essentially return tenancy law pretty well back to where it was in the 1980s, when many people with spare properties were loathe to let them out for fear they would be unable to take back possession when they needed to. While the rental market has always had its Rachmans, happy to turn out a family of house and home on a whim, there are very genuine reasons why people might want a property back after, say, 12 months. Such an example might be if they are off abroad on a sabbatical and want to rent out the family home while they are away.

The first unintended consequence of the rental reforms was to create a massive growth in holiday lets. This happened because, until Jeremy Hunt ended the special rules on holiday lets in this month’s Budget, owners of these properties were still allowed to claim mortgage interest against tax. This led to large numbers of properties being withdrawn from the long-term lettings market and put on Airbnb instead. Gove, like Hunt, has extended his war on landlords to holiday let-owners – introducing new rules which will require their owners to seek planning permission to run them in this way (although existing holiday lets are supposed to be granted permission automatically). We don’t yet know the results, but it is quite possible that the government will end up seriously damaging the tourism industry, which until now was enjoying a boom in people holidaying in Britain.

If Gove was expecting a war against landlords to bring about a fall in house prices he has been disappointed. Prices hardly stumbled last year (when they fell sharply in many other countries) and there are plenty of signs that the market is starting to rise again.

Why don’t we have a sharper fall in prices, when landlords are apparently selling up? Because another element behind Britain’s unaffordable housing is the lack of new homes being built. We are building fewer than 200,000 new homes a year, yet net migration alone has been running at over 700,000 people a year. For decades, an underlying shortage has helped prop up house prices when they might otherwise have crashed.

Gove has decided to side with frustrated would-be homeowners. But there is another group with whom you might expect the government to have a little more sympathy: private pensioners. If, unlike Gove, you do not face the prospect of a featherbedded retirement courtesy of a gold-plated pension underwritten by the taxpayer, you are forced to make other provisions. The miserable performance of the UK stock market has pushed many people of quite modest means into buy-to-let. These make up a large proportion of the landlords on whom Gove has declared war. He cannot expect a lot of thanks for this at the ballot box.   

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