Hannah Slater: A step closer to safe and secure homes for private renters – but there’s still some way to go

Hannah Slater

Last Thursday, the government published the long-awaited White Paper on private renting reform, promising to deliver ‘robust and comprehensive changes’ to the private rented sector’ in England, which is home to over 11 million people.

In this White Paper the government set out its plans to make private renting fairer and more secure for tenants, improve the quality of rented homes, and enable tenants to raise concerns and challenge their landlord without fear of repercussions. The reforms will be implemented through the Renters’ Reform Bill as well as other measures.

The White Paper comes after strong policy work and engagement by the Renters’ Reform Coalition, a coalition made up of 20 leading housing and homelessness organisations who work with private renters, from tenants’ unions to charities and thinktanks. For full disclosure – the Nationwide Foundation funds and is a member of the Renters’ Reform Coalition.

So, what’s in the detail of White Paper, and what does it mean for renters and renter campaigns?

Improving security for renters

The government will replace the Assured Shorthold Tenancy (the current rental contract) with a new periodic tenancy by default, as called for by the Renters’ Reform Coalition in A Renters’ Blueprint for Reform. This will give tenants greater flexibility to leave when they want, rather than having to wait to the end of the contractual fixed term. Replacing the default tenancy contract will also end section 21 ‘no-fault’ evictions, which most landlords use to evict tenants. We know that section 21 evictions are a cause of anxiety for private renters, and can be used to evict tenants for spurious, untruthful, and discriminatory reasons. The new periodic tenancy and confirmation of the abolition of section 21 evictions are real wins for renters and the coalition.

Under the reforms, tenants will be better able to challenge rent increases, and rent review clauses, which seek to increase rents periodically, will be banned. However, while the plans are a great start to improving security for renters, the White Paper crucially doesn’t provide confidence that landlords won’t be able to use rent increases to force out tenants. There is no plan to set a limit on rent rises within the tenancy, although the landlord will have to provide two months’ notice to tenants of the increase.

New possession grounds will enable landlords to remove tenants if they wish to sell, or move themselves or their close family members into the property. This was always going to be the case if section 21 evictions are removed but, disappointingly, the notice period for tenants to find a new home in cases where these grounds are used will not be increased from the existing two months: we know this is inadequate time for many tenants to find a suitable new home.

Neither will there be an extension of the current time period of six months where landlords can’t evict for these reasons, which will leave some households in the terrible position of being forced to find a new home just as they’ve settled in. And there is no detail on the safeguards which will prevent landlords from using these grounds untruthfully. Government pledges to support councils and police to tackle illegal evictions, yet no detail is provided on this.

The renters’ movement will now need to act quickly to make the case that renters need longer notice periods to find a new home, and greater protections from being evicted just after they’ve moved in, or via rent rises or illegal eviction.

Driving up the safety and quality of private rented homes

Ensuring that all private tenants have access to a good quality and safe home is a key government priority, particularly in relation to levelling up parts of the north and the midlands. The White Paper confirms that the Decent Homes Standard, which is currently being reviewed for improvement, will be extended to cover private rented homes and that pilot schemes with a selection of councils will trial improvements in enforcing housing standards. A new property portal – which could be developed into the national landlord register called for by the Renters’ Reform Coalition and others – will promote compliance with housing quality and safety standards, providing councils and tenants with valuable information on the condition of properties.

These proposals to drive up standards and improve the decency of rented homes are good news for renters, although we will need to see what the final Decent Homes Standard includes. What we do know is that cash-strapped councils already struggle to enforce property standards across the country, so the government will need to provide crucial support and ultimately funding to local authorities to ensure that the quality of rented homes meaningfully improves, and that all tenants will be able to benefit from renting reforms. This is a key learning from Scotland’s 2016 tenancy reforms.

The renter movement can cautiously welcome government’s plans on housing quality, but it’s certainly one to keep an eye on. Driving up housing conditions is a huge challenge that will require sufficient resources.

A new Ombudsman to improve access to justice for tenants

The White Paper promises a new Ombudsman that all private landlords will be required to sign up to, enabling tenants to bring disputes free of charge. The Ombudsman will have the power to compel landlords to apologise, provide information, take action, and/or pay compensation. This sounds promising for renters and may take the pressure off overstretched courts and councils, but the Ombudsman will need to be well-resourced and accessible for tenants if it does not become another body with the powers to enforce but without the resources to do so effectively.

The Ombudsman is the headline act in how government plans to improve access to justice for tenants, but there are also promises to address issues with the courts system, strengthen mediation, and provide early legal aid for renters. The renter movement will need to follow the detail closely as plans develop to ensure that these moves do deliver better for tenants when things go wrong.

Further measures

Also included in the White Paper are welcome measures to make it illegal for landlords or agents to have blanket bans on renting to families with children or households on benefits, and give tenants the right to request a pet.

Government commits to monitoring the development of market-led solutions to deposit passports, and the practice of multiple months’ rent being required in advance. While no action will be taken on these just yet, it’s good that government is keeping a watchful eye in these areas. This provides some scope for the renter movement to highlight issues with unfair practices in the deposit market, and exclusionary practices which make it harder for some tenants to find homes.

What’s next?

We’re definitely one big step closer to ensuring that private renters have safe and secure homes, but there’s still some way to go for the renter movement on key details. The Renters’ Reform Coalition will be campaigning hard over summer to ensure that the plans are strengthened rather than watered down, ahead of the Renters’ Reform Bill. The White Paper, which isn’t being consulted on but instead presented as a consultation response, lays the groundwork for the bill to be introduced into Parliament this autumn.

On a final note, at the Nationwide Foundation we’re really proud of the tenacity and dedication of the coalition and renter movement to get us to this point. More than three years on from the then-government announcing that it would end no fault evictions, the renter movement has weathered a change in prime minister, a pandemic, and multiple competing domestic and global issues. The coalition has done a brilliant job of holding government’s feet to the fire to keep their promises to renters. A welcome reminder, during challenging times, that strong civil society really can make a difference.