On 15th April, the UK Government announced what they call the “biggest change to the private rental sector for a generation”: changes to Section 21 of the Housing Act (1988) which will end the use of no-fault evictions. This means that tenants in England will soon – like their counterparts in Scotland – not be able to be evicted without a specific reason from their landlord.
This is something our colleagues in Shelter (England) have been campaigning for since 2005, and they have described it as a “victory for every housing campaigner”, effectively ‘fixing’ tenancies in the private rented sector and changing the way tenants are treated.
The private rented sector in Scotland
In Scotland, we have welcomed this announcement from the UK government, offering tenants in England similar protections to those introduced in Scotland under the Private Housing (Tenancies) Act 2016, which came into force in 2017.
This was a huge piece of legislation and an incredibly necessary one. Currently 15% of Scottish households live in the private rented sector, 24% of which now contain children. There was an acknowledgement across Holyrood’s parties that in this evergrowing sector, greater security was needed, and the 2016 Act and other reforms sought to provide increased stability for tenants.
Scotland now has some of the strongest protection in place for tenants in the UK. Not only did recent tenancy reform offer tenants indefinite tenancies – meaning an eviction order could only be secured by using one of 18 grounds – but it also introduced a whole host of other changes. Changes have been made to the ways and amounts by which rents can be increased and a new process for dispute resolution was introduced. The First-tier Tribunal (Housing and Property Chamber) was introduced to replace the Private Rented Housing Panel and certain aspects of the sheriff court, and provides a place where tenants (and landlords) can raise disputes without fees.
It’s now almost 18 months since the private residential tenancy was introduced – and with it, the introduction of indefinite tenancies in Scotland. Do households feel more secure in their new tenancies? Has it reduced the number of households being unfairly evicted from their homes? Has it reduced homelessness in Scotland? These are all questions we are waiting to know the answers to, but for now the evidence is anecdotal.
What is certain, is that the introduction of the new PRT and associated reforms has laid a strong foundation of protection for the growing number of households living in this sector. One tenant told Shelter Scotland that these changes were giving back a sense of security, no longer being “constantly on the move, uprooted from schools, family, support networks”. Scotland’s leading work in this sector must not be overlooked, but as with any major piece of legislation, there are gaps and problems to iron out.
So, what lessons can we pass on to England?
• 36% of calls to our national helpline last year came from households in the PRS – despite only 15% of Scotland’s households living in this tenure. There is still more to build on in addressing the problems that private tenants face.
• While Scotland now offers indefinite tenancies, it is important to remember that landlords still have 18 grounds for repossession. Unfortunately, anecdotal evidence from our services suggests that some of these grounds are being misused. Too often, the onus is on the tenant to prove that a landlord has acted illegally – for example, landlords stating they are evicting a tenant to sell a property, which may never be sold.
• The introduction of the First-tier Tribunal for Scotland provided a free and more informal route for tenants to address disputes with their landlord. Any English system of no-fault evictions should include a similar mechanism for these challenges.
• Despite the good intention of this tribunal, too many tenants don’t feel equipped and informed enough to challenge their landlords in this setting – often up against a solicitor. More needs to be done to ensure tenants feel confident and secure in challenging their housing rights in the PRS.
• Lastly, stronger rights for tenants are all well and good, as long as they are used: too many tenants in Scotland still don’t know their housing rights. It is essential that the UK government look ahead to how they will promote the proposed changes to both tenants and landlords throughout England.
With the number of tenants in private rented households in England doubling over the past 20 years, greater security and protection for households living in this tenure is long overdue. Make no mistake, this is a sizable step in the right direction, but as the Scottish experience shows, the end to no-fault evictions needs to be one part of a programme of change that seeks to inform and empower tenants to challenge their housing rights. There is more to be done in Scotland to ensure that tenants feel confident taking these actions on. For now, we welcome the commitments of the UK Government, and will continue to share our experiences to ensure that this commitment works in practice, hopefully as part of a package of reform in England’s private rented sector. Welcome aboard!