Caps, controls and controversy
The ongoing media furore over the government's planned benefit reforms and the creation of the capped universal credit has focused quite rightly on the issue of rents. One of the largest payments to families in receipt of benefits is housing benefit, and much of that goes to private sector landlords. It is worth noting that housing benefit does not currently pass through the pockets of many households, being paid instead direct to the landlord (although along with many other things this is scheduled to change, a matter of great concern for social housing landlords who fear a spike in arrears rates as a result). The very concept of the fabled '£26,000' cap on household benefits income is therefore open to challenge on the basis that these households do not actually see a large proportion of that money - the rent charged is purely a transaction between the government and their landlord.
Private sector rents have been rising strongly in recent years, and are forecast to continue to do so. As the housing benefit bill rises it is therefore unsurprising that the government should wish to limit it. Capping benefit payments is a demand-side action which seeks to deflate the lower end of the rental market. But is capping benefits the most effective way in which to do this?
The legislation already exists to moderate lower-quartile private sector rents in a much less messy, more humane fashion. As Labour MP Dr Eion Clarke points out, the government already possesses the ability to regulate the rents which private landlords charge - and indeed used to do so.
So, if it wishes to moderate its housing benefit bill efficiently (in terms of parliamentary time) and effectively (in terms of producing the desired effect on lower-quartile private sector rents), why does the government not simply amend the relevant existing legislation and re-enact rent controls for the private sector?
Is it, perhaps, insufficiently politically sexy?