by Joshua Davies, programme manager for transforming the private rented sector
Last week, the government released the long-awaited Renters Reform Bill. This comes over four years since Theresa May originally pledged rental reform and an end to ‘no fault’ evictions in England’s private rented sector. Finally having the Bill moving through parliament is a big milestone, and a real achievement for the renters’ movement – not least the Renters Reform Coalition, which the Nationwide Foundation funds and is a member of.
So, what does the Bill get right, what’s missing, and what needs to be strengthened to protect renters?
Requiring landlords to provide a legitimate reason for eviction is a major step forward
The Bill ends landlords’ ability to evict tenants without providing a legitimate reason, also known as section 21 evictions. This is a massive step forward and will lead to real improvements for renters, who will have more security in their homes and be better able to ask for repairs with less fear of receiving a retaliatory eviction notice.
All tenancies will be rolling monthly contracts with no fixed end date, providing flexibility for tenants to be able to leave when they need to. It will protect low-income renters by ensuring that rent arrears due to Universal Credit payment delays are disregarded when a landlord seeks repossession. This is a welcome change given the persistent delays in the benefit system.
A new private renting database will support landlords, tenants, councils and government
The Bill provides for a new Private Rented Sector Database to be set up. All landlords and properties will need to be registered on the database, and local authorities will be able to record penalties that have been raised against them. Although much of the detail still needs working out, this is the first time we’ll have a national record of landlords, and it could be an effective way to deliver benefits to both landlords and tenants in the form of support and information.
Enforcement to be strengthened through more powers for councils and the creation of a new Ombudsman
Local authorities are to be given greater enforcement powers and the ability to fine landlords who break the law by harassing tenants and evicting them illegally. These new powers sit alongside a new private rented sector Ombudsman, which will be compulsory for all landlords to be registered with and which will allow independent complaint investigation.
Ensuring that regulations are enforced is key to renters being able to benefit from their new rights
Whilst it’s a step in the right direction, the Bill in its current form misses out on the opportunity to ensure that all renters truly have the security they need in their homes.
Again and again, the Nationwide Foundation’s funded projects tell us that regulation is meaningless without proper enforcement. We’ve funded research into similar tenancy changes in Scotland, which tells us that strong and targeted enforcement is essential to improve the housing conditions and security of low-income tenants. It also finds that landlords are frustrated by the prospect of further legislation without proper enforcement. Similarly, our project investigating how to transform the private rented sector in Greater Manchester calls for more resources and more consistent enforcement as essential factors in improving the private rented sector.
While improved powers for local authority enforcement are welcome, councils already struggle to enforce existing regulation. It’s vital that local authorities receive ringfenced resources to be able to root out and penalise bad landlords. Getting this right is key to allowing renters to actually use the new rights they will be getting from the Bill. And when legislative changes are made, tenants will still need advice and support to know their rights and be confident to use them, as evidenced by the work we’ve done with organisations across the country to support tenants to have a voice.
A new Ombudsman could help, but needs to have sufficient resources and be easy to access
The new Ombudsman should also act to enforce renting regulations, providing tenants and landlords with a new avenue to achieve justice. However, if not properly implemented, there is a risk that it will create another difficult system to navigate and act as a barrier to resolving issues. The Ombudsman must be properly resourced, straightforward to access, and set up to encourage tenant and landlord engagement.
More protection is needed for tenants where landlords use new repossession grounds
The Bill introduces new eviction grounds covering situations where a landlord wants to sell the property or move themselves or a relative in. Alongside this, a tenant who has been in over two months’ arrears on three occasions in the past three years can now be evicted, even if they have no arrears at the time of eviction. This is a real danger for potentially vulnerable tenants who might experience crises that they then resolve.
At the moment, these are all mandatory eviction grounds, meaning that a court won’t have any choice but to order an eviction. We think that the court should have discretion to look at all the facts of each case and decide; all eviction grounds should be discretionary, not mandatory. While the court will still decide to evict a tenant sometimes, this is a fair way to allow judges to take tenants’ circumstances into account.
This will also provide an important safeguard against the new sale or moving in grounds. The Bill leaves open the door for less scrupulous landlords to abuse the new grounds without ever really intending to follow through on a sale or moving in. Evidence from our funded research in Scotland tells us that, where similar changes were made in Scotland, the new grounds for eviction were often abused. To protect renters from this, we want the Bill to require more stringent evidence checks for landlords who seek eviction on these grounds. The Bill should also prevent landlords from re-letting the property for one year after using these grounds.
On top of this, we want to see a prohibition on the use of the new sale or moving in grounds for the first two years of a tenancy. As it stands, landlords will be able to use these grounds six months after a tenant moves in, meaning tenants could start putting down roots in an area only to be evicted. We also want to see eviction notice periods extended from two to four months, to give tenants sufficient time to find a new home.
The Bill fails to address private renting affordability or housing standards
It’s widely accepted that the affordability of private renting is a major concern, but the Bill does nothing to address this. It does limit rent rises to annually, but leaves the door open for landlords to use big rent rises as a way of evicting tenants. The government should prevent landlords from carrying out backdoor revenge eviction via unreasonable rent hikes. This should be done by limiting rent increases within tenancies to the lowest of either inflation (CPI) or real median income growth averaged over the last three years.
The government also previously said it would drive up safety and conditions by applying the Decent Homes Standard (which currently applies to social housing) to private rented properties. But this Bill does not deliver on this promise. We’d also like to see time limits for investigating and fixing damp and mould as part of the Renters Reform Bill, matching the new regulations brought in for social housing following the tragic death of Awaab Ishak in Rochdale.
For now, our focus will be on making the Bill the best it can be for renters. As the Bill progresses through parliament, we’ll be working with the Renters Reform Coalition to push the government to make amendments which improve the Bill. And once the Bill becomes an Act, we’ll continue to work with renters and government on the secondary legislation which will be so key to the impact of the new changes in practice.
While it might therefore seem like the work has only just begun, it’s worth closing with a reminder that the Bill really is a major milestone. We’re really proud of the work of all our grant-holders and collaborators in getting us this far. That we have a Bill, and that it will deliver genuine change for renters, is a testament to the strength, collaboration and dedication of the renters’ movement.