Reforming Private Renting in England
The Government published its long-awaited White Paper on reforms to the private rented sector on 16th June. Described as marking ‘a generational shift,’ the paper set outs an ambitious 12-point plan of action to reform the sector and re-balance the rights of landlords and tenants to create a fairer private renting system in England. The proposals are due to form part of the Renters’ Reform Bill that is expected to be introduced this Parliamentary session. Below we take a look at the key proposals set out in the Government’s paper. These will be explored in more detail in future blog posts.
Key proposals in the Government’s paper White Paper on reforms in Private Renting:
Abolition of section 21 ‘no fault’ evictions and a new modern tenancy system
Abolishing section 21 notices, which allow landlords to evict without giving a reason, has been one of the most prominent and divisive proposals in the anticipated Renters’ Reform Bill. Despite the upheaval of the pandemic, the Government remained committed to scrapping s21 notices but little detail was provided on how this would be done and what this would mean for private sector tenancies. The White Paper reveals the Government’s plans to completely overhaul the assured tenancy regime by moving all tenants who previously had an assured tenancy or assured shorthold tenancy onto a single system of periodic tenancies. This new ‘modern tenancy system’ will give tenants greater security by preventing landlords from evicting without a reason. Furthermore, tenants will no longer be locked into fixed-term contracts but will be able to end their tenancies on two months’ notice. ASTs will be phased out with all tenants eventually transitioning to the new system following a staged implementation process. This is an ambitious proposal and suggests the Government is committed to comprehensive reform of private renting, creating a whole new tenancy regime rather than tweaking the assured tenancy system currently in place.
New grounds for possession and a more efficient court process
Coupled with the Government’s plan to end no fault evictions has always been the promise to strengthen possession grounds to ensure responsible landlords are able to regain possession of their properties swiftly when they need to. The White Paper therefore sets out the Government’s aim to reform grounds for possession including introducing a new ground for landlords who wish to sell or who wish to move themselves of their family in. There are also proposals to accelerate a landlord’s ability to evict tenants causing anti-social behaviour and strengthen rent arrears grounds, including a new mandatory ground for tenants who repeatedly fall into serious arrears.
The Government has also committed to providing a more efficient court process so landlords who have a legitimate reason for gaining possession can do so more quickly. Rather than proceed with a new housing court, the Government has decided to reform the existing court system. Procedural changes adopted during the pandemic including the prioritisation of certain cases and a mediation scheme look set to become permanent features of this reformed possession process.
Improving housing conditions by applying the Decent Homes Standard to the PRS
The Decent Homes Standard is a standard that applies to the social rented sector. It requires homes to be free from category 1 hazards, in a reasonable state of repair, have reasonably modern facilities and services and provide a reasonable degree of thermal comfort. The Government now intends for homes in the PRS to meet this standard. Local authorities are already under a duty to take enforcement action in relation to properties with category 1 hazards but in practice this often works reactively with tenants involving the local authority if they are unhappy with the condition of their property. It will be interesting to see how the Government proposes to enforce this standard and whether there will be a more pro-active approach to ensuring the standard is met. The White Paper refers, in the longer term, to considering whether there is scope to introduce a system of regular, independent checks, possibly even an independent regulator for the PRS. However, in the short term, it seems the Government is focused on ensuring local councils have the tools to enforce the standard and extending existing measures such as Rent Repayment Orders to include non-decent homes.
New Property Portal and stronger enforcement powers for councils
The Government’s proposes to introduce a new digital Property Portal where all landlords will be required to register their properties. The Portal will then provide a single ‘front door’ for landlords to both learn about their legal responsibilities and also demonstrate their compliance. The idea is that responsible landlords will be able to easily show they are compliant and this will help them attract good tenants who will be able to carry out due diligence on their prospective landlords through the Portal. Equally, the Portal will expose landlords who fail to comply with their obligations and this will assist Councils take more effective enforcement action.
Local authorities are to be given stronger enforcement powers and, longer term, the Government’s aim is to incorporate some of the functions of the Rogue Landlord database into the Portal making details of offences publicly available. The Government also wants to address the variation in enforcement action between local councils, the so called ‘postcode lottery,’ by having greater national oversight of local authority enforcement and creating a national framework for setting fines so there is a more consistent approach to private renting.
New PRS Ombudsman
Again, in an attempt to give private tenants the same rights as social tenants the Government intends to introduce a new single government-approved Ombudsman that all private landlords in England, even those who instruct agents, will be required to join. The Ombudsman’s remit will be wide dealing with complaints ranging from landlord behaviour to repairs not being carried out within a reasonable timeframe. The Ombudsman will have a range of powers including the power to compel a landlord to take remedial action and pay compensation of up to £25,000. The aim is to provide quicker and cheaper dispute resolution (use of the service will be free) and reduce the number of complaints that end up in Court. The Government states that it will retain discretionary powers to enable these decisions to be enforced through the Courts if compliance becomes a concern but ultimately there will need to be effective processes in place for tenants to enforce awards if this is to provide a realistic alternative to Court.
Restricting rent increases
The Government proposes to end rent review clauses and restrict the circumstances when a landlord can increase the rent. Rent increases will only be allowed to take place once a year and the notice period will be increased to two months. Tenants will continue to be able to challenge rent increases in the Tribunal but the Tribunal will not be allowed to increase rent beyond the amount the landlord initially sought. Interestingly, the Government is also considering introducing a power limiting how much rent landlords can ask for in advance. While seeking large upfront payments may be uncommon in the sector as a whole it is a practice regularly seen in the student rental market particularly with international students.
Blanket bans on letting to tenants with families and to those on benefits to be made illegal
The Government recognizes that the profile of those living in the PRS has changed significantly in the last 30 years. The PRS is now home to many people on lower incomes and households with young children. Blanket bans on renting to people on benefits, also known as ‘No DSS,’ have been declared unlawful and in breach of the Equality Act in recent county court cases but the Government now intends to legislate to make such blanket bans illegal.
Giving tenants the legal right to keep pets
This is an issue that has frequently made newspaper headlines in recent years. The Government now proposes to change the law so that a landlord cannot unreasonably withhold consent when a tenant requests a pet. To allay landlord concerns, landlords will be able to require tenants to obtain pet insurance to cover pet damage and the Tenant Fees Act will be amended to make this a permitted payment. This is another component of the Government’s wider strategy to improve private tenants’ renting experience, enabling them to make their house their home.
Lifetime deposits, also known as passporting deposits, is an initiative designed to improve affordability and mobility in the sector combating the problem many tenants experience when moving of having to find a second deposit while they wait for their existing deposit to be returned. The idea of passporting deposits between tenancies has been around for a while and the Government ran a call for evidence on tenancy deposit reform in 2019. The Government’s current proposal is to monitor the development of market-led solutions in this area. It seems, therefore, that the Government is unlikely to take immediate steps to reform deposits, rather this will be kept under review with the possibility of further action in the future.
We will have to see how many of the Government’s proposals make it into the Renters’ Reform Bill and how many go on to become law. However, this is not the piecemeal approach to PRS reform that we have been used to seeing in recent years. This is an ambitious, even radical, agenda designed to bring about substantial change to the PRS, shifting the balance between landlords and tenants and creating a fairer tenancy system that works for the diverse range of people it serves today. There is plenty to absorb in the Government’s White Paper. Working out how to implement the proposals, considering the knock-on effect on other legislation and transitioning to a new tenancy regime will not be straightforward. Things rarely stand still in the PRS but now it seems major change is on its way.