Ending Section 21 ‘no fault’ evictions is the right thing to do for private renters – it can also be a vote winner

I’m a private renter. Nothing unusual about that I’m sure you’ll say, lots of people are. And that’s true, but it wasn’t always that way, and the current situation, of growing numbers of private renters, is a recent phenomenon. The most recent figures from the English Housing Survey show that a fifth of people across England now live in privately rented accommodation.

A third of councils have more than 20% of residents renting privately, and research from the campaign group Shelter shows that at the next (currently scheduled) general election there will be 253 constituencies where more than 20% of voters are private renters. This trend has been increasing steadily over the past decades. In 1996/97 just 10% of the population were private renters, but now it’s double that.

And yet our private renting model is based on laws introduced in the late 1980s. That was thirty years ago, and while the demographics of private renters have shifted, the model hasn’t. And so private renters, like me, are demanding an upgrade to private renting policy, to make the system fit for the very different world of the 21st century.

A good illustration of the pressures facing the system was given by a BBC report late last year, which highlighted the growing phenomenon of rising numbers of 35-45 year olds renting privately. Over the past decade their numbers have doubled. It’s a consequence of a number of factors, but chief among them are the chronic lack of social housing and the spiralling cost of buying a property, now almost completely out of reach for those on a low or median wage.

There are now more private tenants than social housing tenants. And instead of being primarily a ‘temporary stop’ for young adults, who used to buy after a few years renting privately, private rentals are now ‘homes’, for families with dependent children, older renters and those near to pension age, people with disabilities, and vulnerable people in low income households, often with complex needs.

It’s right that our party has policy pledges on increasing housing stock and creating more homes, for purchase or for rent. But all of these will take time to enact, and will cost money, which is in short supply. Private renters need secure, affordable and decent homes sooner than that. Fundamentally we need the laws on private renting to change and create tenures fit for purpose in the 21st century.

But this isn’t (just) a tale of woe, it a tale of possible change. Just a few weeks ago, and thanks to the hard work of Baroness Grender and Wera Hobhouse, changes to the law mean that letting agency fees for tenants will be banned from this June. It’s a great step that will help the huge numbers of financially pressed private renters.

But we can’t let the work stop there. Private renters also need better security of tenure. At the moment, many tenants have just six months’ security in their home. After that we can be kicked out via a Section 21 ‘no fault’ eviction’, giving us just two months’ notice, and forcing us to stump up thousands of pounds in unexpected moving costs. With a Section 21 notice, a landlord doesn’t need to provide their tenant with any reason for their eviction. Too often this happens because the tenants have asked for basic repairs or safety issues in their home to be fixed. Renters who make a formal complaint to the council about conditions in their home have a 46% chance of receiving a Section 21 notice within 6 months. It’s nothing less than revenge eviction, and the fear of it prevents many renters from asking for repairs or challenging bad practice. And unfortunately, the recently passed ‘Homes (Fitness for Human Habitation) Act’ won’t provide much help, because with Section 21 still in place any court action to force the landlord to make our homes safe, risks an eviction.

Our party has recognised that Section 21 needs reform and its now policy to bring in a 6-month notice period for tenants subject to a ‘no fault’ eviction. And while is would help a little isn’t enough. What private renters really need is an end to Section 21. Last year over 50,000 people signed a petition to the Secretary of State calling for Section 21 to be abolished. It’s a policy call with widespread appeal, and is backed by many leading housing and poverty charities.

And don’t listen to the strident landlord lobbyists, who say this is just bashing landlords, because it’s not. They would still be able to get their property back if the tenant was in arrears or at fault. We could also add an option to the legislation to cover repossession for property reselling, but importantly, with a requirement that a landlord works with their tenant to ensure no-one loses out.

A Lib Dem campaign to End Section 21 ‘no fault’ evictions would reach a group of people who could be a real political force at the next election. Their growth, ignored or forgotten by the Tories and Labour, gives us a real opportunity to win their votes by offering bold yet sensible policies, and is built on a proven commitment to their needs.

And, we could give millions of people security in their homes and their lives that they so desperately want. Wouldn’t that be a campaign worth getting behind?

* Mark Platt is a member of Westminster Liberal Democrats, and was on the London Region Executive Committee (2016-18). He volunteers with Generation Rent, a campaign organisation focusing on tackling the challenges facing private renters in the UK.

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7 Comments

  • Lorenzo Cherin 19th Mar '19 - 1:21pm

    A very important contribution Mark, really good analysis that has a personal and political connection .

    You are correct about this and do that which few do, you do not let your experience blind you to other aspects of this but rather keep you grounded in the real world need to appeal widely. More parliamentarians show us, in this party, the approach is necessary to succeed, but there is little diligence in present UK politics , that gets attention.

    Get onto policy with this proposal, and we can back it, I have experience in this area too, and can link.

  • Andrew Toye 19th Mar '19 - 1:31pm

    I totally support this proposal. We will probably hear calls from the Tories of interference in the market – but what we have with Section 21 is a one-sided power relationship favouring landlords, not what Adam Smith would remotely call a “free market”.
    In the circumstances that a landlord needs to sell, why does this require the eviction of tenants? It used to be the case that a tenancy would continue under a new landlord and “sitting tenant”. Perhaps this arrangement should be re-introduced? Estate agents will give a higher value to a vacant property, but the evicted tenant gets absolutely nothing from this increase in profit.
    People who abuse power should have their weapons taken away from them – that includes abusive landlords. Yes to genuinely free markets, but no to one-sided power relationships.

  • Morgan-Ross Inwood 19th Mar '19 - 2:13pm

    I want to raise an issue that is not related to Section 21 but is related to private sector housing which the Party should look at and that is NO DSS on adverts which is discrimination. I say this as according to Shelter Zoopla have banned NO DSS on their website. https://blog.shelter.org.uk/2019/03/zoopla-bans-dss-discrimination/

    I am raising this point as I have been looking at private rented housing recently and feel deterred from applying for that property whether it is one-bedroom or if I wanted to foster children then 2-bedroom as I would have to have a room spare when I make the application to foster and if I went through social housing or Private Registered Public Sector Housing (PRPSH) I would be hit by the Bedroom Tax. I am sorry for not commenting about Section 21 specifically but I wanted to raise the point discussed in this comment which is NO DSS.

  • @Mark
    Of course the Section 21 notice can only be used at the end of the fixed term or where the tenancy has lapsed into periodic mode. If you want security of tenure then sign for a fixed term. The section 21 notice is used as a default because it avoids a court hearing. Where the relationship between a landlord and tenant has broken down keeping them together is just a recipe for more conflict. The problems in the housing market are more deeply routed than simply targeting the section 21 process. The Assured Shorthold Tenancy has become the exclusive format for domestic tenancies and the clue to the problem is in the name. They were never designed for long occupations. The majority of landlords attracted into the market via the buy-to-let boom are not really in it for the right reasons. We need a new format of tenancy for long term renters and a new types of landlords. Of course what we really need is to make housing more affordable.

  • Roland Postle 19th Mar '19 - 7:05pm

    Further to the ‘NO DSS’ terms, some landlord’s insurers won’t take on properties unless the landlord agrees that no tenants will be on benefits, even for plain buildings insurance rather than cover for unpaid rent. The discrimination is deeply ingrained and it does need to end, much like use of the nearly 20 year obsolete ‘DSS’ initials needs to end.

    “We could also add an option to the legislation to cover repossession for property reselling”
    This seems open to abuse. A landlord can always say they’re selling, evict tenants, and then change their mind. We need long tenancies and homes sold with sitting tenants. A more difficult problem to solve is when a small-time landlord unexpectedly wishes to repossess a property to live in themselves.

    My own biggest problem as a renter with the Assured Shorthold Tenancy format is the almost total lack of landlords willing to let for *less* than 6 months initially (and sometimes insisting on fixed 6 month extensions after that). Most people’s lives aren’t packaged into convenient 6 month chunks. I’d argue tenants need more power to get both longer and shorter agreements.

  • The overarching issue is structural. By this, I mean that the private resi letting market in the UK is dominated by individual buy to let landlords (itself a consequence of low interest rates over the past couple of decades), as opposed to institutional investors (eg property funds) unlike on the continent.

    Individual buy to let landlords tend to rent out single properties as a sideline while working full or part time, invest relatively little money in the property (eg doing repairs), and will seek to cash in at some point (so will sell, and often for vacant possession).

    By contrast, institutional landlords tend to take on purpose built blocks of flats or estates, invest more into the property as they wish to retain the value of their assets at all times, tend to want to keep tenants to secure a continuous income stream and sell their properties to other institutional investors subject to existing tenants (who bring an income stream) – not with vacant possession.

    It is clear from the above that the UK would be better off with much more housing developed and run by institutional investors. Indeed, many institutional investors would not mind too much if s21 notices were abolished – they take a much more long term view. But abolishing s21 notice would lead to private individual landlords exiting the market, leading to a decrease in supply. Therefore, until institutional investors gain a larger share of the resi housing market through expansion of build to rent schemes, abolishing s21 might unexpectedly lead to a short term spike in rental prices in some areas where demand exceeds supply.

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