The UK government has tabled the long awaited renter’s reform bill, the first step to change in England’s troubled private rented sector. The bill’s headline reform is to end “no fault” evictions, something Theresa May announced plans to do when she was prime minister in 2019.
But while it proposes fundamental reform and greater protection for renters, at the same time it gives landlords a host of new powers – including to evict.
Currently, under section 21 of the Housing Act, landlords can give renters two months’ notice to leave the property without any reason needed. Renters then have to leave the property or risk being taken to court. And, unless the landlord has not fulfilled their responsibilities, the court has to grant an eviction.
“No fault” evictions are a significant cause of renter insecurity. Renters often don’t feel at home in their property, nor can they easily put down roots in their community. And research has shown that renters had a 46% chance of receiving an eviction notice if they complained about their landlord to the council.
Insecure tenancies mean that renters often don’t have the confidence to challenge dangerous conditions. The tragic death of Awaab Ishak has brought to the fore the devastating impact unsafe housing can have on health.
To this end, the bill does not follow through on the government’s levelling-up promise to apply the decent home standard to the private sector. The standard – currently under review – is a legal requirement in the social rented sector. It sets out the criteria a home must meet to be considered “decent”, meaning safe and of good quality.
The government has committed to introducing further legislation within the current parliament to address this, and it’s needed urgently – more than one in five privately rented homes don’t meet the standard.
Reforms for renters
Under current rules, renters may be offered a six or 12-month tenancy before this turns into a “periodic” tenancy. The bill proposed that all future tenancies will be open ended, giving renters more flexibility to move at short notice, for instance, to take a job. To assure landlords, renters will be required in most cases to give two months’ notice to end the tenancy.
The bill also seeks to enshrine in law the right to ask the landlord for permission for a pet. This would require landlords to grant that permission unless they have a good reason.
Under the Consumer Act 2015, blanket bans on pets were already unenforceable, but this will give pet-owning renters greater security. However, the good news is really for landlords, as it will allow them to ask the renter to have insurance in place to cover for pet damage.
This bill will also introduce new requirements on private landlords. They will have to be a member of a new ombudsman scheme (someone for renters to complain to if things go wrong).
There is not yet a lot of detail on what types of complaints the ombudsman will handle, but it appears that it may be able to require landlords to compensate renters in some situations. Landlords will also be able to use the ombudsman as a mediation service when they have issues with their renters.
Landlords will also have to register all of their properties as part of a new, national “property portal”, to help councils tackle bad landlords. Past research has shown that councils struggle to crack down on illegal activity by landlords, largely because of lack of access to data.
However, with local authorities struggling financially, more funding will be required to translate these policies into action.
Landlords will also be controlled in how they can increase the rent. While some of these powers already exist, these are being strengthened.
Under this bill, landlords will now only be able to increase the rent once every 12 months, and renters will be able to challenge the rent increase in a tribunal.
More powers to landlords
The bill expands landlord powers to evict tenants for anti-social behaviour. They will now be able to serve notice for eviction for behaviour “capable to cause” nuisance or annoyance to the landlord, neighbours or housemates.
Landlords will be able to apply for a court order as soon as the notice is served. The ground remains discretionary – which means the court has to decide whether there is enough evidence to evict.
Domestic abuse charities are concerned about these new rules, as victims of domestic abuse are often punished for antisocial behaviour that was caused by their abusive partner.
The bill also allows landlords to evict at short (two months’) notice if they want to sell or move into the property. These powers cannot be used within the first six months of a tenancy and landlords would be barred from letting the property again for three months. Landlords could face a fine of up to £30,000 or prosecution for misuse of these powers.
In the current format, this could still be abused. The onus is on the renter to keep track of whether the property was re-let.
Expanding the proposed landlord property register to be a register of tenancies, including information on rent levels and reasons for ending tenancies, could act as a route for councils to identify breaches.
What the bill leaves out
Having a secure and safe home is a fundamental need for all. Improving security for renters by ending no fault evictions and limiting the frequency of rent increases is a good first step. Landlords should be reassured that they will be able to evict if things go wrong and the relationship can not be repaired.
However, there is more action needed to improve the situation for renters, which the bill does not address. To start, the bill does not include any concrete plans to stop landlords from having blanket bans on benefit claimants or tenants with children.
Finally, it does nothing to resolve the growing financial pressures faced by renters, as many struggle with the cost-of-living crisis and rapidly increasing rents.