Analysis: Sky News landlord rant highlights Establishment’s vested interest in housing inequality

Ben Wray

When housing inequality has got progressively worse over the past 20 years, it may be time to start looking at the vested interests of media/political elites – including in Scotland

IF YOU have not yet seen the Sky News anchor Jayne Secker’s outrageous interview with a tenant, then here it is in all its breathtaking arrogance.

Secker has subsequently given a sort of non-apology, saying the “tone and content” was “wrong”, adding: “Mea culpa”.

More interesting was some of the responses, including from the interviewee, Kirsty, who said subsequently on Twitter: “I was not told beforehand that I would be interviewed by a landlady or had no idea how condescending and insensitive her line of question will be. Let’s get more working class people presenting news shows next.”

Faiza Shaheen from the CLASS think-tank went on a similar theme, saying: “This presenter inadvertently admits her biases – imagine if the vested interests of the media and political elite were better known? Many things would start to make a lot more sense.”

While most people will have an inclination that the politicians and journalists at the top of the system are not likely to have the same material circumstances as they do, Shaheen is right to suggest that little attention is put on the specific forms by which the Establishment have not just different, but often counter-posed, interests from the majority of citizens.

Being a landlord is one such example, and one that illuminates a huge class divide between official politics and the people, and relates directly to government policy.

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A government imposed rent cap would mean tenants keep more of their income and landlords get less of it. Stronger tenant rights means weaker landlord control. Building less social housing is bad for tenants trapped in the expensive private rented sector but it’s good for landlords, who increase their income from housing benefit. Quantitative easing increases the value of assets, meaning higher prices for buyers/tenants and more income for sellers/landlords. The raw class divide in housing is, for many government policies, a zero-sum game: either those paying the rent or those receiving the rent win.

And make no mistake, the housing crisis we have is not some mysterious act of the ‘invisible hand’ of the market: it’s government policy decision that has got us here. As Josh Ryan-Collins, Toby Lloyd and Laurie Macfarlane’s superb book on housing points out, in the 1970s, over 80 per cent of government housing subsidies went towards supply-side intervention; mainly the construction of homes. Today that has flipped to 85 per cent of subsidies for the demand-side, in the form of billions in housing benefit payments, support for first time mortgage lenders and such like.

So if this is a government-created crisis, why does it always seem to be somewhere way down the media and government’s list of priority issues? While obviously not the only reason, the lived reality of journalists and politicians may have something to do wth it.

READ MORE: 3 in 4 Scots support rent controls, new poll finds

There is no public information on how many journalists are also landlords, but we can make a guesstimate. A 2016 government report on social mobility found 11 per cent of journalists come from working class backgrounds, compared to 60 per cent of the population as a whole.

Shelter England have analysed the demographics of private landlords and found 79 per cent earn incomes over £30,000 per year and a classification of income and social class puts landlords among the top groups, with the most likely category landlords fall into being ‘Lavish lifestyles’.

So putting the social class of journalists together with that of landlords appears to place both in a similar category.

The wonders of register of interests at the House of Commons and Holyrood means we do know how many of our MPs and MSPs are landlords, and the answer is quite a few: and growing.

The Guardian reported in 2016 that 196 MPs were landlords, equating to one in every 3.3 MPs. That was up by a quarter on the parliament before the 2015 General Election.

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CommonSpace analysis of the Scottish Parliament register of interests finds 29 MSPs are accruing rental income from their property, with 12 Conservatives (one in 2.6), 11 SNP (one in 5.6), five Labour (one in 4.6) and one Lib Dem (one in five) making up the landlord cohort.

In total, that’s 22.5 per cent, with an additional Tory MSP’s register ambiguous about whether he currently derives income from the property.

So the Scottish Parliament’s landlord rate is slightly lower than the House of Commons’ at one in 4.4.

But with the Urban Data Centre estimating the landlord population in Scotland to be at 223,000, an MSP is five times as likely to be a landlord as the Scottish population in general. 

And crucially – for both journalists and politicians – according to Shelter only four per cent of landlords describe it as their full-time job. Being a landlord is an ideal way to make money without doing any or much actual work, which is why for busy people like journalists and politicians it is an easy win.

That’s not to say that every landlord MSP is as conscious in defending their own interests as Secker of Sky News, but it would also be totally naive to think that the nearly one in four MSPs with a direct interest in accruing rental income from tenants is not quite substantial special interest.

And when that’s combined with looking at Holyrood’s record when it comes to private rental housing – a tripling in the size of the sector since devolution, with the the poorest fifth of Scots who pay more than one-third of their income on housing costs increasing from 24 to 37 per cent in that time, while the richest fifth of Scots have barely seen their housing costs rise at all (see above graph) – then it would be negligent not to question the link between Scotland’s class of politicians and their vested interests. 

When Grenfell tower came down two years ago, there was a consensus – including among media and political elites – that it was a watershed moment when it comes to class, housing and inequality in Britain. It’s a sign of how much sweet nothings that was that a Sky News anchor thinks they can get away with such obvious class contempt towards a tenant live on air. If we want real change, we may need to change the class make-up of those with their hands on the levers of power.

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