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Comment: Gove’s solutions to Britain’s housing crisis increasingly look too little, too late

The United Kingdom is currently facing one of the worst housing crises in history and as Housing Secretary Michael Gove fears, poses significant threats to democracy and social equality. 

The complexity of this crisis is evident in the detrimental effects it has on various aspects of society, including access to affordable homes, social cohesion, and individual rights to secure stable housing. 

In this article Tom Entwistle tries to shed light on the severity of the crisis and explores some potential solutions, here he gives his opinions on the plans put forward by Michael Gove, the banning of Section 21, and the crisis within the courts system.

Too little too late?

Will the Renters (Reform) Bill turn out to be the panacea the Government promises, or will it lead to an even greater housing crisis? That, it seems to me, is the gamble Gove is taking.

In what could easily be the dying embers of the current Conservative administration, Michael Gove’s belated attempt to cure Britain’s housing crisis with his Renters (Reform) Bill - if indeed he manages to get it through before the end of this Parliament – is looking increasingly tenuous.

Tenants’ rights

Based on the premise that increasing tenant’s rights will lead to a lasting solution, the Bill will sweep away the long-standing Assured Shorthold Tenancy and with it goes section 21, which currently allows landlords a quicker way to remove tenants from their properties, but only after their initial fixed term has ended.

When I say quicker, I mean in relative terms. It can still take with s21 a minimum of six months, and in many cases quite a lot longer to regain possession. And contrary to the popular view that landlords throw tenants out onto the street with little notice, most landlords want good tenants in their properties as long as they can persuade them to stay – by far most evictions occur when tenants don’t pay their rent or create other issues for the landlord, house sharers or neighbours.

The changed demographic in renting

The nature of the renting population has changed considerably since Margaret Thatcher introduced the shorthold tenancy in an era when most renters were singles, young couples and professional people, working in cities. Today, with nearly one-in-five households renting, families make up a large proportion of tenants. Understandably, they want stability, security of tenure and freedom from the worry of being asked to leave their homes, especially if they have children at school.

There is also a dearth of council housing, which once housed many of the families, but now they are relying on private landlords to provide them with their rental homes. The Government now expects private landlords, funded by welfare payments in many cases, to take up the slack and provide this much-needed accommodation. 

The price of housing  

The price of houses means that young people are staying in rentals longer, some into middle age and beyond. With earnings-to-house price ratios nationally around 6 times, while in London it’s nearer 9 times earnings, getting onto the housing ladder is a greater struggle than ever, without parental help. These figures compare to around 3 times earnings when the shorthold tenancy was introduced in 1988.

This hike in house prices, accelerated following the money printing splurges of the 2007-9 financial crisis, and more recently during the Covid pandemic, is an international phenomenon. The US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand have not escaped the turmoil, some places are even worse than the UK. This knowledge does not make it any easier to bear, or ameliorate the cries of inequality and the threat to democracy itself – recent surveys show that over 50% of young people would be happier with a strong dictator in Britain than a democratic government – that’s how deep the feelings run.

How to square the circle?

How do you bring together all the elements, the mix that makes up housing today into a cohesive whole: the varying renting demographics, the 4.5 million of so households in England alone relying on rentals, a range of landlord types from large and small to good and bad, and undoubtedly, the cohort of bad tenants who can make a landlord’s life hell, and never want to rent again.

To my mind, and I may be simple minded in this regard, you don’t do it by implementing a tax regime that makes renting unprofitable. If a tax code is so convoluted that it’s possible for a landlord to be making a loss but still have a tax liability, there’s definitely something amiss. 

The Government doesn’t invest in social housing anymore, but by making it impossible to make a reasonable return on renting, it discourages landlords from investing too. There’s money there to be invested: landlords would invest their hard-earned money and take out mortgages to acquire more rentals, if only they could see a way to make reasonable profits. Why doesn’t the Government take advantage of this free funding source and release thousands more rentals onto the market? 

A congested courts system

Landlords will eventually accept the decision to seek possession using section 21 being taken out of their hands, whether using a section 8 hearing, a digital court system or an alternative resolution process. What they can’t reasonably be expected to accept is a court system in disarray such that the eviction process can take months and even years.

Faced with the prospect of the removal of Section 21 and all the other obstacles put in their way, landlords have been leaving the sector in large numbers, many using Section 21 to evict while it’s still available. Eviction numbers have gone through the roof of late, leaving a large backlog of cases in the court and court bailiff system. 

It’s tenants that suffer in the end

This has made things far worse for tenants than if things were left as they were: the landlord flight brought about by fear of change has exacerbated the housing crisis. It’s resulting in the removal of rentals from the market, and thereby increasing rents to exorbitant levels in some locations. The shortage is causing tenants to scrabble around for every vacancy that comes along, and some unscrupulous landlords to profiteer by evicting tenants so that they can take on new ones at higher rents. 

Michael Gove has promised to implement the new bill this year and speed-up the court system by putting in more money. But many property experts, including experienced lawyers, are sceptical that he can achieve the necessary improvements in such a short time – indeed he was quoted until recently as saying S21 would not be abolished until the court issues are remedied, which some experts have said will take at least three years.

A broken system

You need look no further than Talk TV presenter and GP, doctor Renée Hoenderkamp’s case to see just how broken the current system is:  Dr Hoenderkamp, says she never intended to become a landlord to “make a profit”, she did it to help out her son who needed to move quickly, to keep paying her mortgage on her one-bed flat in Hendon, northwest London.

But a nightmare tenant has trashed the place and as is typical in these situations, pays no rent. Landlords are left worrying about the state of their houses for months while attempting to evict through the courts, all the while housing tenants for free. 

As she told the press: “It’s been really stressful. All the time you're wondering: will it ever come to an end? Even then, I know when it does come to an end, I'm going to have to get builders in to replace the bathroom.”

What has made it worse, the tenant was a former friend who has caused in the region of £7,000 worth of damage. 

Paul Shamplina of Landlord Action, who has been dealing with the case, has said it’s important to point out that Hoenderkamp, like many landlords, is not using a Section 21 ‘no fault’ notice to regain her property but a Section 8 notice [as will be the only option when the new Bill becomes law], because the tenant has breached their tenancy agreement.

“And yet landlords are still being forced to wait months and months to get their properties back. The imbalance between the rights of landlords and tenants is becoming increasingly apparent, with landlords bearing the brunt of administrative inefficiencies.” 

Mr Shamplina says the looming abolition of Section 21, which provides landlords with a no-fault eviction option, is poised to exacerbate these issues further. Without adequate resources allocated to the court system, the backlog of possession cases is likely to escalate, leaving both landlords and tenants in limbo,” he says.

Getting the balance right

With all the moving parts in this housing crisis saga, getting the balance right is horrendously difficult if indeed it is altogether possible: the rental housing situations in other nations within the United Kingdom and beyond are just as bad if no worse: Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic have all introduced legislation to improve renting, with mixed results.

On the one hand many landlords are so fearful of a new legal regime that brings a raft of new rules and regulations and a sea change in the tenancy law, they are selling up, arguing it goes too far towards empowering tenants, while tenant’s bodies are arguing it doesn’t go far enough. 

Polly Neate, who is the chief executive of the housing charity Shelter, says that the Government is "being far too weak" in forcing through the measures in the Bill in the face of opposition from Tory MPs, she told BBC News.

On the other hand, NRLA’s Ben Beadle, the organisation's chief executive, said: "Tenants across the country are facing a rental housing supply crisis. It is vital therefore that plans to reform the rental market secure the confidence of responsible landlords as well as renters."

Meanwhile a spokesperson for the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities told the BBC: "Our landmark Renters (Reform) Bill will deliver a fairer private rented sector for both tenants and landlords. It will abolish section 21 evictions - giving people more security in their homes and empowering them to challenge poor practices."

My three imperatives

Three things are obvious, it seems to me: 

First, if you can’t improve incentives to retain landlords, by allowing them to invest at a reasonable return, they will continue to leave and rents will continue to put tenants under strain. 

Secondly, generally speaking there are enough laws, rules and regulations already in existence to deal with bad landlords, if only these laws could be rigorously enforced. Responsible landlords and their associations have for years been calling for local authorities to put in more resources to deal with bad landlords effectively. 

Third, when landlords are stuck with a bad tenant, they need to be able to remove them quickly, (1) to reduce the amount of damage they do and (2) to get back to earning rental income, as soon as possible, because most landlords have mortgages to pay.

Without a proper court system, able to deal with bad tenants quickly, whether the decision to evict is made by the landlord, a judge or another third party, the system must be fair but swift. 

In my opinion, these imperatives are vital if landlords are to be part of the solution to a nationwide housing crisis.


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