Theresa May’s government can get some things right. The curtailment of landlords’ power to evict tenants for no reason with only eight weeks’ notice has been rejected by Labour and Tory ministers for decades. Now the proposed abolition of “section 21” evictions should free landlords from being seen as heartless exploiters, and tenants as worthless transients, endlessly complaining.

Europe’s maddest housing market should be brought closer to its sanest, Germany, where 55% of people enjoy secure and mostly happy private tenancies, for an average of 11 years each. In Britain just 20% are private tenants, with tenancies of an average 30 months. Germany suffers no get-on-the-ladder hysteria. Private savings are not frozen in bricks and mortar, but put to economic use.

To deprive someone of a roof without good cause – such as damage, nuisance or falling behind in rent – should be illegal. A rented house is also a home, part of a neighbourhood. Landlords should be seen as community architects. Section 21 must go.

But every housing reform in history has had unintended and often adverse consequences. The government has decided not to extend the minimum tenancies to three years, but instead to make them open-ended. At face value, this “semi-nationalises” the private rented sector. Without some rights for landlords over their property, the consequence will be, as it was with council housing, to restrict availability and diminish flexibility. Downsizing will be discouraged. Houses will be underoccupied by ageing tenants.

British housing policy remains obsessed with new building – largely at the bidding of the construction lobby. By far its greatest housing resource lies in existing buildings, which remain occupied at low density because of high stamp duty and low property taxes. The 2011 census showed Britons now occupy 2.5 rooms each, against 1.5 in 1980. Housing densities in British cities are the lowest in Europe.

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The poorest people tend to live in privately rented accommodation. London councils rely on it to house thousands of newcomers who land on their doorsteps each year. Newham recently found that a majority of its council houses that had been sold to tenants under right-to-buy had become private rentals. Many were housing the thousands of newcomers a year on the council’s list and on housing benefit. They were a desperately needed resource.

A drying up of this supply would mostly hurt the poor. Drive the property market towards sale not rent, and the rich will benefit from falling house prices.

The easing of rent regulation over the past 40 years certainly went too far. But the job of government is to balance the market to protect its most vulnerable users, not stifle it. For their part, the landlords should not howl. They should argue for a clear definition of what does and does not constitute cause for eviction. Germany has made renting respectable. Now Britain should do so.

Simon Jenkins is a Guardian columnist



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