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Hannah Gousy @HannahGousy Policy and Public Affairs Manager

The Housing and Planning Bill- creating a legal loophole for rogue landlords?

Today the Government’s Housing and Planning Bill will get its first proper grilling in the House of Commons.

Much of the focus will be on the right to buy extension and the forced sale of councils’ most expensive properties – measures, which we are very concerned will further accelerate the decline of affordable housing for those in the greatest housing need. We will blog about the changes we want to see as the Bill moves through parliament.

But this is a Bill of two halves, and the other focuses on measures to tackle rogue landlords and poor conditions in the private rented sector.

These include:

  • Allowing local authorities to ban the very worst landlords and letting agents;
  • Creating a database of rogue landlords and letting agents for local authorities to access;
  • Allowing local authorities to access data on landlords from the tenancy deposit schemes to help enforce against poor conditions; and
  • Giving tenants who are illegally evicted, harassed by their landlord or forced to live in poor conditions the ability to reclaim rent paid to their landlord.

It’s excellent to see the Government taking such firm, much needed, action to help improve conditions and standards in the sector and we look forward to working closely with them to ensure these measures are designed and implemented to give tenants the best recourse when things go wrong.

But there is one element of the private renting part of the Bill which we think is very worrying for tenants.

The Bill introduces a new ‘fast tracked’ route for landlords to evict tenants who they think have abandoned a property. Landlords will be able to regain possession of a property where the tenant hasn’t paid rent for eight weeks and they haven’t responded to two letters warning them that they will be evicted. We are very concerned that this will create a legal loophole for rogue landlords to evict tenants who are still living in properties much more easily.

Our concerns:

  • A landlord would no longer need a possession notice from the courts to regain a property. Taking the courts out of the process altogether means that tenants who are being illegally evicted would have no opportunity to challenge the proceedings and prove that they were actually still living in their home. There would be no check to ensure that a landlord had really sent the warning letters or the tenant hadn’t responded. In this situation the tenant would have very little notice to leave, leading to an increased risk of homelessness.
  • This is especially worrying because currently cases of illegal eviction are very rarely investigated. Whilst the Bill makes provision for a tenant to challenge the landlord in a county court if they have had good reason not to respond to the warning letters, this can only take place once they’ve already been evicted. There are two main problems here. Cuts to legal aid have severely limited a tenant’s ability to take this type of recourse. Plus if you had a good reason not to respond, such as being unwell, it’s unlikely you will be in a position to go through a difficult and expensive court process.
  • There is no robust evidence to suggest that abandonment is a significant or widespread problem. Landlord associations have estimated that 1% of calls made to their helplines relate to abandonment. There are approximately 1.4 million landlords. From this figure the government has extrapolated that there are only 1,750 tenancies abandoned every year, which amounts to only 0.04% of private renting households.
  • We are particularly concerned that tenants in receipt of housing benefit will be much more vulnerable to exploitation under the new eviction process because they are often subject to delays in payments. Rather than go through a more lengthy eviction process for rent arrears, a landlord might just claim abandonment, and you’d have little recourse to challenge this.
  • And as if those points weren’t worrying enough, this legislation seems pretty unnecessary as there is already legal provision for cases of abandonment, in the form of implied surrender. In this situation a landlord can take back the property and re let it very quickly. But importantly there has to be an explicit action on the part of the tenant (e.g. you give the keys back or move all of your possession out). There can be no grey area. Where it’s unclear, a landlord can’t evict you so quickly.

Creating a legal loophole for rogue landlords to exploit looks set to risk undoing all the good measures being taken to tackle poor practice in the sector. We hope that MPs will vote to scrap this section of the Bill.

You can read our full briefing for the second reading of the Housing and Planning Bill here.