The last thing your home should be is a source of harm. But that’s the reality for millions of people in England. If you’re a private renter, your landlord doesn’t need a reason to turf you out. The threat of eviction can make people hesitant to ask for improvements. As a result, one in five private rented homes fail decency standards. One in eight contain hazards such as mould, infestation or faulty wiring that are harmful to occupants’ health.
Campaigners have been talking about these problems for years. The government is finally listening. This week, it published the most comprehensive policy proposals for the private rented sector in a generation. The white paper and the forthcoming renters reform bill will abolish section 21, the 1988 law that allows landlords to take back their property without needing a reason to do so. It will create indefinite, German-style tenancies, and put in place a new regulatory framework to improve the quality of private rented homes.
These new plans will mean that tenancies can only be ended by the tenant, or if the landlord has a legitimate reason to do so. And tenants will be able to challenge all rent increases at a tribunal. Landlords will have to join a new ombudsman and property portal so that tenants can check a landlord is compliant with the law before signing a tenancy. This will give tenants a body to raise complaints with if they are ignored. Landlords will also have to meet minimum decent homes standards or be liable to refund your rent.
Generation Rent, of which I am the director, and other members of the Renters Reform Coalition first secured a commitment to ending section 21 and introducing an ombudsman back in 2019. But it has taken tenacious campaigning to keep the issue alive and to secure these concrete proposals. We can’t rest until the changes get through both Houses of Parliament and on to the statute book.
Although the plans have been delayed, there is no doubt Michael Gove has taken them seriously. He has considered the experience that reforms have had on tenants in Scotland, where indefinite tenancies have been in place since 2017 and landlords have had to register since 2006. The English proposals go slightly further. Although landlords will be able to seek an eviction if they want to sell or move family members into a property, the new proposals stipulate that they won’t be able to do this during the first six months of a tenancy. To prevent abuses of these loopholes, landlords will be restricted from re-letting their properties for three months if they later change their mind.
Tenants in Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland can currently check if their landlord is registered. The English portal will also aim to provide information about the landlord’s compliance with legal requirements. There are already theoretical protections against illegal eviction, where landlords force tenants out without court-appointed bailiffs, but they are not well-enforced, especially as police officers often incorrectly view all landlord-tenant incidents as “civil matters”. The white paper is looking at improving council powers to tackle these.
There is already licensing in place for houses in multiple occupation, but criminal landlords are increasingly using complex arrangements such as “rent to rent” (where a landlord sublets individual rooms within a property they are renting) to avoid detection. The white paper promises to ensure that all types of landlord can be properly held to account.
Discrimination is rife in renting and Gove has promised to root this out by stopping landlords from imposing blanket bans against children, benefit claimants and pets. Many low-income and self-employed renters find they get asked for multiple months’ rent up front, which creates an insurmountable barrier to getting a tenancy. The government is looking at powers to intervene here too.
The white paper is undoubtedly ambitious, but there are areas where it could go further. The jury is out on whether safeguards against retaliatory evictions will be enough to protect tenants from no-fault evictions. Even with these new policies in place, it’s likely that many legitimate evictions will continue. In these cases, tenants should really get a longer period of protection from no-fault evictions, a longer notice period and support with their moving costs.
Crucially, although new legislation will give tenants an incentive to challenge rent increases at tribunal, the tribunal will still base the rent they award the landlord on the local market rate. If market rents are rising quickly, there’s nothing to stop tenants being priced out of their homes.
We need more than this. Rent rises should be limited to what tenants can afford. Fundamentally, the government needs to address the lack of affordable housing in the private sector. To tackle this, it would need to build more council housing and increase people’s benefits.
The rental reform agenda is being driven by two levelling up missions: to create a path to home ownership and improve the quality of rented homes. Both need tenants to have the stability of a long-term home, and the confidence to ask their landlord for improvements. Get the detail right and the renters reform bill will be a huge opportunity to improve the lives of private renters.