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.