I Looked Up The Financial Interests Of Britain's Recent Housing Ministers

How can we expect the rental market to get any fairer if our MPs are the landlords?
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I’ve never been happier to scrap an article and start again. I’d stayed up all Saturday night writing a wonderful piece castigating the main parties’ refusal to engage on what seems to me, and probably to oh I don’t know, about 15% of the rest of the country a fairly key issue – the catch 22 situation that is private renting in the UK. You can’t afford a deposit to access a mortgage so you have to rent, but the rent is set at an ever increasing level so high that you can’t afford to save for a deposit. An increasingly common complaint, but one that I suspect is not taken seriously by the older generation who often seem to think that we’re simply frittering away our savings on apple products and hippy crack. Which is valid, but you simply will not comprehend how fucked up the current system is until you too have been offered a 25% share of a one bedroom flat in return for a £40,000 deposit. By a man with a straight face. Working on a housing development that has the effrontery to call itself an “affordable homes scheme.” While you can hear a rich young Greek couple eagerly signing up at the table next to you. As Chinese students wander past clutching shiny brochures. And you think xenophobic thoughts. And then you feel bad for feeling xenophobic thoughts and also for being poor which these days seems to count as a bigger character flaw then xenophobia.

And yes that scenario may well give away the fact that I live in London. Where according to the ONS, 50% of Londoners rent, 23% on the private market. Median rents rose by 9% last year. Wages rose by a median of 2%. It’s like a game of snakes and ladders where you’re banned from accessing any of the ladders unless your Dad already accessed them 30 years before. The received wisdom is that by choosing to live in London I’m therefore a yuppie idiot and should simply accept my fate, move out of the city and commute to work. I still won’t be able to afford to buy in the commuter belt because that’s what a lot of better paid yuppie idiots have already done, but the rent will be cheaper. Although it’s going up fast there too. And what I’ll save on rent I’ll spend on ever increasing rail fares and overpriced Styrofoam tea. So I still won’t be able to save for a deposit. So I’ll move further away again, until eventually I become one of those guys who always showers at work and has rumpled shirts because my house will be in actual Wales and I’ll just secretly sleep in the office’s disabled toilet Monday – Friday. 

The game has changed, however. Labour have decided to announce a planned future rent cap, thereby ruining my night's work but cheering me up considerably. And not just because I dearly hope to someday not have to pay 50% of my income to somebody I’ve never met so they can take that money and buy another house to rent to another pleb for 50% of their income so they can carry on ad infinitum until we’re back in the good old days of indentured labour and feudal systems. Because frankly I doubt Labour will win a majority, meaning everyone will plead the lib dems student fees defence and not action their manifesto promises.

The important thing for me is not the proposal itself but the raising of the issue. I cannot express the rising frustration I’ve felt over the last few years as every time politicians are asked about the subject in interview they’ve brushed it away with a few platitudes and then the firm claim that any kind of rent control would simply stop investment in new homes. Which has increasingly struck me as odd as the whole country knows that we’re in a mess because we’re hardly building any new homes anyway. So the landlords aren’t building new homes to rent out, they’re just using their financial clout to buy pre-existing homes and then rent them to the people they priced out of buying them. And the luxury designer shoeboxes that are being built along the length of the Thames were never going to be rented to British people anyway – look at Battersea.

I saw so many politicians brush this subject off that I began to wonder if they had registered what an impact it was making on people’s lives. Then I discovered that a third of our MPs are themselves landlords and it began to make sense. As a class, MPs represent the rentiers, not the renters. And as the housing stock increasingly falls into the hands of a small number of people that disconnect is going to be thrown into sharper contrast. Labour seem to have cottoned on to the fact that there are however, a lot more of us then there are landlords. Since 2000 the private rental market has more than doubled. There are millions of us. And we are beginning to get pissed off. Not quite at the Brixton level of trashing Foxtons pissed off, on the whole, but definitely pissed off nonetheless. It chimes with a whole zeitgeist of unease as to the direction of our country – the gap between rich and poor growing hugely, the resentment of the Conservative’s Eton and Oxbridge dominated cabinet, a marked decline in social mobility, a frequently voiced concern that all our breakthrough young actors and musicians seem to come from privilege. It’s like every single thing in society is conspiring to undermine Cameron’s infamous claim that “we’re all in this together.”

The Conservatives, living up to stereotype, are the party with the highest number of MPs receiving rental income from properties, including David Cameron, George Osborne, Chris Grayling, Jeremy Hunt, Oliver Letwin or in other words, half the cabinet. Can there be much call for real change from people who are clearly invested in the current system? In contrast, while there are plenty of Labour MPs who also receive rental income, I couldn’t see any of their heavy hitters listed, other than Andy Burnham. A plague on his house too then.

Then I wondered if those connections carried over into policy, or if there was potential for it to. So I looked up the register of declared financial interests for the eight most recent Housing Ministers. Isn’t the internet brilliant? The last four ministers were Conservative, and the four before that Labour. In the interests of fairness I checked the year 2015 so far for all parties, but also the year 2009 – 2010 for the Labour ministers, to see if their spell in power had an effect on their finances. I hope both parties have the best interests of the British public at heart. I really hope the Conservatives counter Labour with an even better offer for private renters. I will leave you to draw your own conclusions as to which party appears to be staffing the Ministry of Housing with venal nonentities….

  • Brandon Lewis, current Conservative Housing and Planning Minister since July 2014. In September 2014 he received £2000 from ‘Patron Capital’ – a wealth fund which describes itself as ‘one of the leading opportunistic real estate managers in Europe’. Their UK portfolio includes a remortgaging company and 920 acres of rural land near Berkhamsted and a ‘local partner with extensive planning process know-how and successful track record in extracting potential value from rural land’ – so presumably the good people of Berkhamsted can say goodbye to their green belt. In March 2015 Mr Lewis accepted £1975 from Mercer Real Estates, a “privately owned real estate investment firm targeting the office, residential, retail, industrial and hospitality sectors across the U.K. and Europe”
  • Kris Hopkins, Conservative housing minister for ten months from 2013-2014 gets an honourable mention for no apparent donations with dubious connections. I almost fell off my chair.
  • Mark Prisk, Conservative housing minister 2012-2013. Since July 2014 he has been in receipt of £1500 a month in return for 8 hours work a month as “Strategic Adviser to Essential Living Ltd, provider of private rented homes” – how in god’s name is that at all ethical? Since 2012 he has also been lucky enough to own a “Part share in a commercial property in Cornwall, from which rental income is derived”
  • Grant Shapps Conservative housing minister 2010 – 2012 received £10,000 in donations from property developers in February 2015.
  • John Healey was the last Labour housing minister – 2009 to 2010. He has retained an interest in housing, working 8 hours a month on the board of the Incommunities housing association. He gets paid around £230 a month for this. Not bad for 8 hours work, but it may be worth pointing out Mark Prisk charges £1500 for the same amount of work. Presumably a different class of client.
  • Margaret Beckett – Labour housing minister 2008 – 2009. No donors with links to housing.
  • Caroline Flint – Labour housing minister Jan- Oct 2008. No donors with links to housing.
  • Yvette Cooper – Labour housing minister 2007 – 2008. No donors with links to housing.