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Renter reform recap

August 01 2023

The Renters Reform Bill was finally published in the Spring. Our writer details what comes next and how the Bill will impact people. By Jamie McGowan

On 15 April 2019 the Government pledged to abolish Section 21 evictions. Four Prime Ministers, three Housing Ministers, and 52,800 Section 21 eviction notices later, the Renters (Reform) Bill (RRB) is finally here. By ‘here’ I mean published. It still has several parliamentary stages to go through, during which there will be opportunities for it to be debated and amended.

In a nutshell

  • The Renters Reform Bill has been published and is one step closer to being law
  • The Bill will go through parliament, meaning it can be amended. However, some key details likely won’t change
  • Section 21 ‘no-fault’ evictions will finally be abolished
  • Abolishing Section 21 will not bring an end to ‘no-fault’ evictions. Landlords will still be able to evict tenants, even if tenants haven’t breached the tenancy agreement. An example of a ‘no-fault’ eviction that will survive the Bill is landlords evicting tenants for family members
  • The Bill will establish a private rented sector ombudsman, and restores tribunal reviews of private rents.

There are some key features of the Bill which are now unlikely to change (much), including the flagship abolition of Section 21s. For tenants, this is broadly good news and hopefully this article will explain why. However, there are certain provisions (some of which are unlikely to go anywhere) which mean the protection the Bill will offer renters is not as strong as it could be. These are also set out.

Ending Section 21s

Section 21 ‘no-fault’ evictions are currently the most common way in which people become homeless in England. The Scottish equivalent provision was abolished in 2016. In Wales, although a very similar provision still exists, the notice period a landlord must give in order to use this option has been extended from two to six months. So England is, again, playing catch-up.

It is worth pointing out that abolishing Section 21 would not, as it is widely being reported, mark the end of ‘no-fault’ evictions. ‘No-fault’ means a tenant has not breached the tenancy agreement but can be evicted anyway. This will still be possible under the RRB in certain circumstances, such as a landlord wanting the property back for a family member to live in (hardly the tenant’s ‘fault’).

It is, however, true to say that this would mark the end of ‘no reason’ evictions and that is a positive step. As discussed further below, I believe that some of the reasons a landlord will still be able to rely on in order to evict someone will undermine the protections offered by the bill. However, it’s probably fair to say that the abolition of Section 21 will represent a major landmark on the road to a private rented sector that can provide genuine stability for tenants.

Remaining no-fault reasons

There are two grounds under the RRB which would enable a landlord to recover possession of a rented property without the tenant having done anything wrong. Firstly, because they require it as accommodation for themselves or a close family member or, secondly, because they intend to sell it.
The problem with these proposals is that they do not require a lot of proof. To use the second reason for example, a landlord must simply demonstrate an ‘intention’ to use the property to live in or sell before they are able to gain possession. It does not stipulate what evidence should be used to demonstrate this.

In Scotland, where a similar ground has existed since they abolished no-reason evictions, this has been abused by landlords. Research from last year found that nearly one third of landlords who had obtained possession in order to sell the property had not actually done so within a year. There is every possibility that we will see similar behaviour in England.

Amended ‘fault’ reasons

One common reason for evictions currently is anti-social behaviour (ASB). This ground isn’t altered much but the definition of ASB is tweaked from the current: behaviour ‘likely to’ cause nuisance or annoyance, to that which is simply ‘capable of’ doing so. There are many experienced housing lawyers who are not particularly concerned by this change, but it does seem to have a broader meaning.

Another common existing reason for evicting tenants is rent arrears. The RRB proposes a number of amendments regarding rent arrears grounds, some good and some concerning.

The good news is that the Bill proposes that if a tenant is being evicted for rent arrears, but can show that they have an amount of Universal Credit which is owed but has not yet been paid to them, the court should acknowledge this when calculating the level of arrears.

The bad news, in my view, is what the Bill calls Ground 8A. This entitles a landlord to a possession order when a tenant has fallen into eight weeks’ arrears on three separate occasions during the previous three years. Even if they have subsequently been brought down to zero on each occasion.

The existing law (Ground 8) requires a tenant to be in two months’ arrears when the notice is served and on the day of the hearing. This new Ground 8A would require a judge to ignore the level of arrears on the day of the hearing and simply ask whether it fell below eight weeks’ rent on three occasions in the past three years. This is a harsh provision and, coupled with a cost-of-living crisis, it is a significant point of concern.

Extra bits

Finally, on a more cheerful note, the Bill includes provisions for a landlord database and portal, the establishment of a private rented sector ombudsman and restores tribunal reviews of private rents. All of these (depending on the details) have the potential to help crack down on the worst excesses of the ‘wild west’ private rented sector.

The Bill would also give tenants the right to request to keep a pet which a landlord could not then ‘unreasonably’ refuse. This might seem like one of the more frivolous points, but there are more households in the UK (62%) with pets than without, and this will be a welcome development for many.

We will have to see what happens to the Bill if and when the Government allocates it time to be debated and, eventually, voted on. For now, all the groups who are part of the Renters Reform Coalition and others who worked so hard to get the Bill to where it is should be congratulated. I very much hope that they will keep the pressure on the Government to make sure it becomes law – and hopefully with some of the existing loopholes tightened up!