Andy Cook is Chief Executive of the Centre for Social Justice.
The most recent investigation of the Centre for Social Justice’s Housing Commission is published today. We heard one message loud and clear from charities fighting social injustice on the front line:
The lack of security in the private rented sector (PRS) is making it even harder for people to address the pathways to poverty.
Whether that’s Real Action in West London telling us about the damage done to children’s education as they are forced to move schools, or the Oasis Project in Brighton, telling us how an unstable home leaves their clients unable to address the other issues in their lives, such as addiction to drugs and alcohol, members of the CSJ Alliance voiced their concerns to us about the interplay between housing insecurity and the challenges holding individuals back.
In its third interim report, Putting Down Roots, the attention of the Commission turns to these concerns directly.
The private rented sector has experienced rapid growth over the last two decades. As the Commission found, in the decade to 2017 alone, the number of renting households with children increased by just under one million. The number of renters on below average incomes increased by 1.5 million. And the number of older renters (aged 65+) increased by almost 150,000.
Household types that could traditionally rely on the security granted by owner occupation or a social tenancy now face having to uproot their lives and look for a new home at just two months’ notice. And while the average tenancy length is 4.1 years, 81 per cent of renters are on contracts offering security of just six to twelve months.
We heard directly about the immense pressure this can place on families. A mother of two in Cheshire told us:
“This week we received ‘notice of possession’. We now have to move out at the end of January, just six months after moving in. But there’s nothing available in this area that we can afford at the moment. We’ve done nothing wrong, and are exemplary tenants who’ve paid up front and just want a quiet family life . . . Our lives have been turned upside down by this nightmare.”
The liberalisation of the private rental market in the 1980s breathed new life into a stagnant sector. More of the people most likely to rent privately and benefit from its flexibility – that is, students, travelling workers, and young people – could take advantage of the increased dynamism (but reduced security) in the sector.
Yet this context has since changed profoundly. The sector has grown from one in ten households in the late 1980s to one in five today.
This has not only impacted tenants, but landlords too. The Commission also found that the processes private landlords rely on to limit costly void periods and to gain possession of their property in legitimate circumstances have grown unfit for purpose.
Many landlords now rely on Section 21 of the Housing Act 1988, the clause which enables them to evict a tenant for no reason at two months’ notice, because the process of gaining possession during a fixed term tenancy through Section 8 is slow, expensive, and ineffective.
Thankfully, the Government is increasingly alive to these developments. It has recently run consultations advancing proposals for wide ranging reforms to private tenancies in England.
The Government must get these reforms right – balancing fairly the needs of both tenants and landlords. To bring the sector up to date, the Commission proposes a package of reforms that would radically strengthen our communities and equip thousands more households with the tools they need to thrive.
First, the Government should introduce a new Standard Tenancy with a four-year term, mirroring the average tenancy length as recorded in the English Housing Survey of 4.1 years. Crucially, the Standard Tenancy would retain the private rented sector’s flexibility advantage.
Second, the Government should abolish Section 21 of the Housing Act 1988, meaning that families will no longer suffer from the upheaval and anxiety of being evicted at two months’ notice without legitimate grounds being proved. In order to replace Section 21, however, the CSJ proposes new rules equipping landlords with a wider range of legitimate grounds to gain possession of their properties during the fixed term, such as if they want to sell up or move in, as well as accelerated grounds for when serious rent arrears are incurred.
Third, and just as importantly, the Government should establish stronger securities for the landlords currently ‘let down’ by the housing justice system. The creation of a specialist Housing Court to deal with housing cases more quickly and effectively would provide swifter and fairer access to justice.
The CSJ Housing Commission will continue to work with the Government in the coming months to ensure that we achieve all we can from private rented sector reform in England.
By helping renters put down roots, a new Standard Tenancy would improve security for both tenants and landlords – and change millions of lives for the better.