Few indeed are the people who greet the day on which figures emerge from the 2011 Census with anything approaching excitement. I am amongst the few. And I was not disappointed, for the figures are indeed fascinating and tell us important things about the society in which we live and the policy challenges we face. Locally, Westminster must once again struggle with the consequences of an undercount of population, which matters in respect of levels of government funding for services, though slightly less than may be thought because government grant has both minimum and maximum levels by which it can vary.
Perhaps most interestingly, Westminster ranks 1 in the whole country for the share of the population who rent privately, with over 39,000 people in this category- a fact no doubt connected to the fact that there are 13,414 properties in the borough which are registered as ‘second addresses'.
Westminster is at the extreme end of what has been a general rise in private renting, which has gone alongside the recent fall in home ownership- the first such fall for many decades. What are the implications of this? Well, firstly, a large private rented sector makes a community less stable and settled. People are less likely to know their neighbours, because private renters move so often. Schools and GPs feel the pressure of a high population turnover, and community organisations struggle to flourish in the same way. Private renters themselves would more often than not rather either own their own home or rent a council or housing association home with more security and a lower rent. Low income families or anyone who suffers a setback like a cut in hours risks having to draw on financial help with their rent, and this adds to the benefit bill. And at the bottom of the market, conditions can be deplorable and tenants of the mercy of bad landlords.
The private rented sector has an important part to play, and there are many good and responsible landlords. but the growth of what we now call ‘Generation rent'- a whole generation apparently trapped in expensive and insecure homes- represents a crashing failure of housing policy. A rapidly growing, more expensive and relatively unregulated private sector could spell trouble in more ways than one. Meanwhile, there is no excuse at all for halving the affordable housing grant as this government have done, whilst allowing an ever larger section of the population to languish in what, for most, is very much their second choice of housing, with little hope of escape.