Samuel Bruce is Head of Housing and Communities at the Centre for Social Justice.
Is there anything worse than friendly fire? Despite the very welcome flagship Renters (Reform) Bill sailing through its Second Reading unopposed, Keir Starmer accused the Prime Minister of crumbling to “the landlords on his own backbenches and killed the policy.” This comes as key changes proposed by the Bill have been kicked firmly into the long grass.
The crux of the issue is tenancy reform – including the abolition of section 21 so-called ‘no-fault’ evictions, which currently give tenants just two months to find a new home. Whilst most landlords are neither ‘absentees’ nor ‘rogues’, government analysis reveals that just 30 per cent of landlords demonstrate good practice, whilst more than a third of all landlords have a record of mixed or lower compliance, not meeting all minimum legal requirements.
Michael Gove revealed earlier this year that 23 per cent of privately renting tenants who wished to complain about conditions chose not to do so, and 31 per cent of those who did were subsequently evicted under section 21 notices. Twenty thousand people were assessed as homeless as a direct result.
This is significant, since the private rented sector (PRS) has doubled in size since 2004 to nearly 20 per cent of the total housing stock. Without much needed reform, it will not provide most renters with the long-term stability required to create communities, put down roots, and build positive futures. A PRS tenant speaking to the Centre for Social Justice as part of our recent Raising the Roof report, confirmed this, saying: “That was always the thing in the back of my mind… If I’m going to confront you [the landlord] for something I need doing… are you going to evict me?”
The strength of the Bill is that it expands rights for good tenants – but not at the expense of good landlords. The abolition of Section 21 is balanced with an expanded list of possession grounds under Section Eight, which means that good landlords will be able to evict tenants who are repeatedly in rent arrears or engaging in anti-social behaviour. Section Eight also includes grounds for taking possession where tenants are not at fault, such as if the landlord wishes to sell the property or move themselves or relatives into it.
Critics of the Bill have cited two principal complaints: that stronger tenancy rights will lead to an exodus of private landlords, and that changes will result in more disputes between tenants and landlords increasing demand on our already overstretched courts.
Analysis by the Centre for Social Justice reveals that concerns over a landlord exodus and associated decline in rental housing stock are overstated. The number of private rental homes in England has grown, since 2019 despite other significant regulations being introduced since then.
However, ensuring rthat courts have the capacity to deal with cases fairly, rapidly, and cost-effectively is essential to the Bill’s careful balance between the interests of tenants and landlords. But the Secretary of State has said that the changes may not be enacted until “the justice system…is in a position to implement it effectively.”
What does this mean, and how long will it take? The Government’s current plans are to introduce efficiency measures such as digitisation and improved prioritisation of cases in the courts. However, it has not set out a clear plan of action and the fears are that nothing will happen until the entire judicial system is improved.
Delay will see neglectful and absentee landlords continue to wreak havoc over tenants’ lives, especially those with low incomes and in areas of high deprivation. Estimates put Section 21 evictions running at 540 a day.
That’s why government must commit to the introduction of housing courts as the clearest way to reassure tenants and landlords that the new system will work. All housing cases could then travel through a single body with the institutional insight needed to process them more quickly and effectively that at present.
Ministers must also set out clear timelines for making intended improvements to judicial processes that deal with possession cases. In addition, the Government should implement a Property Portal and an Ombudsman, and improve enforcement by local councils.
Gove is right that “a healthy private rented sector is in all our interests” and that landlords and tenants need a new and fair deal. It is in all our interests that we get it now.