The shift to renter rightsPosted: March 11, 2019 | |
Originally published on March 11 as a blog for Inside Housing.
Can it really be less than five years since Labour’s plans for three-year tenancies in the private rented sector were attacked by the Conservatives as ‘Venezuelan-style socialism’?
And is it really less than three years since Royal Assent for a Housing and Planning Act that included provisions to abolish secure tenancies and make fixed terms mandatory for new council tenants?
A plan for that to apply to housing association tenants as well was only dropped because of concerns over their public-private status but many associations enthusiastically took up the voluntary option of fixed terms they were given in the 2011 Localism Act.
Until very recently it seemed that social housing was set to follow the private rented sector into a marketised world of flexibility and insecurity.
However, the pace of change on this issue in the last 12 months has been rapid and it is still accelerating.
The biggest move so far came on Friday when Labour followed up on its conference pledge to scrap no-fault evictions by announcing plans for indefinite private tenancies.
Considering that the more modest plan for default three-year fixed terms was party policy at the 2015 election under Ed Miliband and even in 2017 under Jeremy Corbyn, this is a big deal.
Labour is promising to ‘protect private renters in England from eviction with new “indefinite” tenancies, based on rules currently in place in Germany’ and argues that this in itself would put a break on rent increases since they tend to happen when tenancies change over.
The party says that: ‘Under the German system, tenancies are effectively open-ended with a tenant only able to be evicted on tightly defined grounds, for example if they don’t pay the rent or commit criminal behaviour in the property.’
And it says it will ‘consult widely’ with landlord and tenant groups between now and the next election to work out ‘proper grounds for termination of a tenancy’.
The Conservatives have made a series of moves on renter issues and are still considering a shift to Labour’s previous policy, with default three-year terms one option in a consultation last year on overcoming barriers to longer tenancies.
Attitudes are changing among social landlords too, with Sanctuary becoming the third large housing association to pledge to offer secure tenancies to its residents on fixed terms when they expire. L&Q and Peabody had already done the same.
So what has changed?
First the politics. Labour and then the Conservatives realised that renters frustrated by their lack of rights represent key swing votes in many constituencies – and that vague promises to smooth their way to home ownership will not cut it.
Second, successful campaigning by new organisations like Generation Rent has given private tenants a voice they previously lacked. This has had a significant media and political impact and pushed the existing housing lobby in a more radical direction.
Third, developments elsewhere. Scotland ended no-fault evictions in the private rented sector in 2017 while Ireland moved to offer ‘rent certainty’ to tenants in 2017 after introducing default four-year tenancies.
Issues remain with the new regimes, with some claiming that the specified grounds for possession in Scotland can sometimes mean less security for tenants, and Ireland having to tighten up its legislation, but so far the sky has not fallen in on the private rented sector in either country.
Finally, Grenfell has changed attitudes to tenants. The pre-2016 rhetoric about ‘lifetime’ tenancies and ‘sink estates’ is no longer acceptable in the wake of the disaster.
The government recognised as much when it said it would not go ahead with mandatory fixed-term tenancies in the social housing green paper.
And yet at the same time as everything has changed – the rhetoric, the political promises, the attitudes – very little has actually changed yet for tenants on the ground.
True, the government has u-turned on mandatory fixed-term tenancies and is still making the right noises about increased security for private renters.
However, an increase in the minimum term of a private tenancy was only one of the options proposed to overcome ‘the barrier to longer tenancies’ and the government has now been sitting on responses to that consultation for six months and counting.
True, Labour is promising indefinite tenancies but it remains to be seen what that means in practice and the party also has to win an election first.
Presumably it would mean abolishing Section 21 and the current default assured shorthold tenancy.
That still leaves lots of room for debate about the ground for ending a tenancy though – would landlords, for example, be able to regain possession when they want to sell up or live in the property themselves or refurbish it? All of these could turn out to be significant loopholes
And what would Labour do about the short-term letting that continues to make inroads into the rental market around the country thanks to sites like Airbnb – or about student accommodation?
It would be difficult to justify giving private renters more rights than social tenants – but would Labour abolish voluntary fixed-term tenancies and introductory tenancies in that case?
Social housing lettings statistics show that 68% of new council and housing association tenancies were secure in 2017/18 but 18% were fixed term and another 12% were on license agreements.
The proportion on fixed terms was unchanged on the previous year but around two-thirds of all tenancies were offered on a starter/introductory period.
So there is still a long way to go on security for tenants and lots of detailed work to be carried out before things really change.
However, the Labour announcement plus the tentative Tory moves on renter rights are indications of just how far the Overton Window has shifted on this issue. Policies that were until very recently seen as beyond the pale now seem not just acceptable but normal