Developing a Private Rented Sector that’s fit for purpose
Over 50 people attended our Policy Day 2020 on the Private Rented Sector (PRS) online on July 4th. The video of the main sessions can be seen in these 3 clips:
Attention has been drawn to the changes needed in this sector by the Covid-19 pandemic, which threw into sharp focus the difficulties faced by private tenants, including:
- Overcrowding and a high degree of shared facilities for some
- Weak security of tenure (particularly, but not only, for tenants sharing accommodation with their landlord)
- Poor conditions
- Poor management, notably by lettings agents
- Lack of outdoor space
The first pair of speakers focused on what needs to change in the short term, whilst later speakers looked further into the future.
Thangam Debbonaire MP, Shadow Secretary of State for Housing, spoke about the issues she has been raising with the Government since April. . Having met with agencies such as Shelter and Crisis, and the PRS campaign groups ACORN and Generation Rent, she had good information about the effect of the lockdown on the PRS. She has been warning the Tories about the looming disaster of evictions for private tenants unable to meet their rent costs because of loss of income, and the lack of accessible advice because of funding cuts to advice services, as well as the pressures on local authorities’ homelessness and enforcement services, and Discretionary Housing Payment systems.
Thangam pointed out that if we had been in government before this pandemic hit us, we would have introduced a renters’ rights bill, scrapped Section 21 “no fault” evictions, and improved the benefit system, so there would not have been such a crisis for private tenants.
Tom Renhard, ACORN Chair, talked about the role of ACORN and ACORN members in challenging actions which threaten the rights of tenants, and the numbers of tenants whose reduced income had led to rent problems. Amongst the 6 demands set out in ACORN’s Health is Housing campaign are a rent waiver for arrears accrued during the crisis, protection from eviction for lodgers, and a longer ban on eviction proceedings.
Dan Wilson Craw, Deputy Director of Generation Rent, noted that many private tenants are being asked to move without due process, and spoke about the fact that illegal evictions had increased. Recognising the lack of knowledge amongst some police officers about their role in preventing illegal evictions, the Mayor of London has led the way here by introducing training on this issue. Dan foresaw a major increase in debt even if the economy recovers in part. Fortunately, the better landlord organisations recognise that eviction action should prioritise anti-social behaviour so that tenants are given more time to repay their rent debts. Dan also noted that any fall in rent levels should be passed on to tenants.
Jacky Peacock, Advice4Renters, started by imagining that tenants’ rights could one day be restored to pre-1988 levels, and that we might, with a Labour Government, progress beyond the somewhat feudal system we still have in the PRS. Not only was security of tenure very much weakened by the Tories, but current rent and benefit levels mean that there can be huge gaps between the two in some areas. Rents should be at standard levels, unless landlords apply to raise them for a particular property, or tenants to apply for a lower rate because of poor amenities or condition. There should be a national registration scheme so that all landlords must appear on a public register, having provided evidence that they, and their agents, are fit and proper people to manage rented property. Poor conditions in PRS properties, linked to fuel poverty, account for many extra winter deaths. Sadly, increases in energy bills during the lockdown will add to this burden.
Karen Buck MP, the final speaker, spoke about her campaign for the Fitness for Human Habitation Act 2018, which came into effect for new tenancies in 2019, and for all tenancies in March 2020. Though a large sub-section of private tenants are happy with both their accommodation and their landlords, and many landlords operate efficient and considerate services, the lack of market power for many tenants means that they have problems with affordability, security and decency. The worst problems are experienced by residents in temporary accommodation, even where managed by Housing Associations. Although enforcement of good housing conditions has been weakened by the shortage of funds, some local authorities show a lack of will to tackle the problems. Housing advice deserts make matters worse. The new legislation gives tenants the right to take enforcement action themselves.
Recommendations from the Policy Day
Participants split into a number of breakout groups and were asked to say what they saw as their priorities for change in the short and long term. These focused on what were seen as vital actions for the Government to take, as well as what the Labour Party should do now.
Key priorities included:
- Ensuring the Government sticks to their commitment to get rid of Section 21 evictions and the use of Ground 8
- Campaigning for the moratorium on evictions to continue
- Campaigning for the benefit system to change – scrapping the Bedroom Tax, and removing the Housing Benefit cap
- Strengthen enforcement to prevent illegal evictions
- Developing tenancies for life
- Linking rents with property condition
- A national register of landlords, with training and accreditation as mandatory
- The Labour Party encouraging Labour authorities to use their full powers, and highlighting the good practice of many Labour councils
- Campaigning for public housing to be built – the right houses to meet the right needs
Labour already has good PRS housing policies – to win the next election, we need everyone to know what could be achieved with a Labour Government, and go on to win for housing and for the country!
Recommendations from breakout groups
What should be changed by the Government now
- ‘Nobody should be made homeless due to Coronavirus’ – remove the cap on Housing Benefit.
- Scrap the Bedroom Tax.
- Increase Discretionary Housing Payments to enable Councils to protect tenancies.
- Keep the ban on evictions for rent arrears accumulated due to Coronavirus. When court hearings are reinstated, help tenants to attend court by applying for costs to set aside.
- Remove Section 21 and Ground 8 as soon as possible.
- Strengthen enforcement to prevent illegal evictions, particularly by increasing funding for local authorities to improve capacity for enforcement, and clarifying the role of the Police around illegal evictions.
- Devise a scheme to protect homeowners who are having their mortgage offers withdrawn because the banks are risk averse, particularly affecting first time buyers and family security.
What the Government should change for the long term
- Homelessness Reduction Act has been unsuccessful – needs to be adequately resourced to enable to help all eligible applicants, rather than just those with a priority need.
- There should be a move towards tenancies for life, as in parts of Europe – this creates greater stability and wellbeing.
- Abolish s21 and Ground 8. It should be the Court’s decision if a tenant should be evicted, not mandatory due to the level of rent arrears because there could be good reason why someone has fallen into arrears.
- Poverty is a large factor in the high numbers of Covid-19 deaths. Local authorities receive hundreds of applications each day for re-housing. The planning rules should be changed and the Local authority’s powers strengthened to force developers to build (not landbank) and to build the right houses needed for all tenures.
- We should expect the Private Rented Sector to demand that the State pays and should therefore be require support to be conditional upon fair rents and good environmental considerations.
- Re-activate the Marmot Principles
What should the Labour Party do?
- We need to recognise that as we are in opposition nationally, we have limited scope to change overall policy environment. However, we can call for changes and expose Tories for failing to make them – e.g. extending eviction ban or failing to deliver on removal of cladding.
- We need to hold them to account over pledges they have made, e.g. commitment to scrap Section 21 evictions.
- We are in power locally and need to focus on practical steps Labour Councils can take and champion good practice and successes. Show the difference that Labour makes!
- Make sure all Labour Councils are utilising the full range of existing regulatory powers relating to the PRS. This will enable us to better expose weaknesses and gaps in the regulatory framework and campaign for these to be addressed through legislation.
- Make sure that all Labour Councils make full use of planning powers to influence local housing markets.
- We need to do more to challenge the practice of Housing Associations who are increasingly behaving like “landlords” in the worse sense of the word and forgetting the “social” bit.
- Attract good landlords and developers towards our policy intentions.