Improving data for the private rented sector

The recent Population and Public Policy Forum on Housing focused on the private rental sector and showed how ONS has been working with experts to identify evidence gaps and find ways to fill them. Joe Lane, Principal Policy Manager from Citizens Advice, talks about the problems facing the sector.

Government Departments and Devolved Administrations are increasingly looking at how to better balance tenants’ rights. As they do, better data – particularly on how people experience living in private rented homes – will be crucial. The ONS Population and Public Policy Forum on the Private Rented Sector highlighted what that might look like.

Private renting is an essential service for 1 in 5 households 

Housing is an essential service, and for most people rent is their largest household expense. Increasingly, that service is provided in the private rented sector.

Over the last 10 years the number of households that live in privately rented homes has increased by nearly 70% to 4.7 million. A fifth of households in the UK are now private renters. The private rented sector is no longer a market just for students – the fastest growing group of private renters by age is the 35-44 and 45-54 year age groups. And more and more, those households are made up of families with children (38%).

The data we have shows big problems in the market

As demonstrated by the range of presentations through the day, a good deal is known about the private rented sector in the UK. From a Citizens Advice perspective the starkest data shows the scale of disrepair in the market.

The most recent English Housing Survey found a quarter of private rented homes in England weren’t decent compared to 13% in the social rented sector. Meanwhile, around 14% of private rented homes had a Category 1 hazard, meaning there is an immediate risk to people’s health and safety. At Citizens Advice, the data we collect highlights the impact of those problems on individuals’ lives. Last year we helped 13,000 people with problems caused by disrepair and 7 in 10 of all private renters said they had experienced some form of disrepair problem.

But there are also gaps in what we know

 What was also clear in both the presentations and the discussion that followed is that there are still large gaps in the data we collect about the sector. Two areas stood out:

  • The comparability of data between nations

One gap – or at least challenge – in the data is the lack of comparability between nations. For example, the Welsh Housing Conditions Survey ran in 2018 for the first time in 10 years, so there has been a lack of comparison for findings from the other UK countries’ housing surveys.

 Housing is a devolved issue, so to some degree the differences in data collection support different policy contexts. However, more comparison would enable all of us to learn from policy successes and mistakes.

  • Geographic granularity

Similarly, across a range of data sources the need for more granular data, particularly geographically, was highlighted. In reality, people’s experience of private renting is driven by relatively small local markets. So when discussing affordability or how well housing stock meets demand, the notion of a national or even regional market often doesn’t reflect local experiences of landlords or tenants.

We use our data to try and fill gaps in what we know about the sector

Another major feature of the day was the need to use data to understand how people experience the sector.

At Citizens Advice, we help around 75,000 people a year with problems related to the private rented sector. We use the data we collect when giving help to fill gaps in our understanding. For example, there was an interesting discussion at the Policy Forum about the role of evictions in the market. Nationally held data on eviction is relatively limited due to it being administrative in nature – so it only records interactions once they’re in court.

The English Private Landlord Survey adds to that, but doesn’t give a full picture. It correctly shows that the majority of tenancies are ended by the tenant – though nearly 1 in 5 (18%) aren’t. But we know very little about how the prospect of eviction – or being asked to leave – affects tenants, and what impact it has on their ability to protect their rights.

Better data on the experience of private renting

 The government has signaled its intent to improve the service people receive in the private rented sector. It’s looking, in particular, at improving the enforcement of the rules already in place. The creation of mandatory redress schemes for all housing tenures, ongoing work to regulate property agents, and looking to give private renters greater security of tenure are all big opportunities.

To take advantage of those opportunities, however, Government Departments and Devolved Administrations, and others in the sector, need to continue to improve their data. In particular, they need to focus on people’s experience of living in the private rented sector. This information will have big implications for how reforms will work in practice.

Joe Lane is the Principal Policy Manager at Citizens Advice


ONS: The future of official housing data

This event was a great example of how government analysts can demonstrate the improvements to the collected statistics whilst also gathering feedback on what our users want.

 ONS and the wider GSS are already making great progress to improve the picture of housing statistical more broadly, including the private rental sector. Back in January, we published a blog post setting out our work in this space and the steps we are taking to improve the picture of housing. We are committed to continued collaboration both within individual Government departments and increasingly working across the four countries of the UK, to improve the coherence, quality, harmonisation, accessibility and user engagement of statistics across the UK.

 Slides from the day are available here.