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23 July 2020

Why hasn’t the government extended the ban on rental evictions?

Without a change of policy, the UK is heading for a dramatic spike in homelessness. 

By Jonn Elledge

I’m not angry, I’m just disappointed. No hang on, that’s not right. Shocked, I meant I’m not shocked. I am angry, and I’m disappointed.

The thing I am angry (and disappointed, but not shocked) about on this occasion is ministers’ complete and transparent indifference to the plight of renters. In mid-March, in recognition of the fact the pandemic and lockdown were going to hit household finances, Chancellor Rishi Sunak announced that the government had arranged a mortgage holiday for homeowners. But even though renters, as a class, have significantly less in savings and are more likely to work in insecure sectors, no equivalent policy was announced for them. 

However: the government did announce a three-month ban on evictions, to ensure that any renter who fell into arrears would not be thrown out on the streets in the middle of lockdown, thus preventing a health and economic crisis from turning into a homelessness one. In early June this was extended by another two months, taking the ban up to 23 August.

Given that both the virus and its effects on the economy are still with us, one might have expected the ban to be extended again. One would have been wrong. The House of Commons yesterday rose for the summer recess (although the Lords are still running for another week yet). The ban will be lifted on 23 August. 

What happens then? Well, the national debt charity StepChange estimates that a mildly terrifying 590,000 people have already fallen into rent arrears as a result of the pandemic; 200,000 of them are in the private rental sector, and so are at the mercy of individual landlords.

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A lot of those landlords won’t move straight to eviction proceedings – because they know it’s hard out there, or because rents are falling as Airbnb properties magically transform into long-term lets, and so it’s in their interest not to be looking for new tenants, or, hey, just because they aren’t terrible people. But the law of large numbers being what it is, some probably will. And the government is doing absolutely nothing to ensure those people aren’t going to end up homeless, with all the implications for council housing teams and the social fabric that that implies.

There are many possible reasons for this. One, which we can’t rule out given everything else this government has done, is simple incompetence: nobody realised that this was a thing that needed fixing and that time to fix it was running out. We’ve all been there.

Another is that the cabinet minister in charge of this whole area is Housing and Communities Secretary Robert Jenrick, and he’s been rather distracted of late by the scandal concerning his dealings with the Tory donor, property developer and former porn baron Richard Desmond. Perhaps the furious paddling required to keep his job has simply meant that he hasn’t had time to actually do it. We have not all been there.

But none of that seems quite sufficient, so I don’t think we can rule out the old classic of “they just don’t care”. Even at a time of unprecedented economic intervention from a Tory chancellor, there are still those whose needs have been utterly ignored (just ask the three million people excluded from all government financial support). And any extension to the right of tenants not to be evicted means eroding the right of landlords to rent their properties to who they want. Perhaps – shocking though the thought is – a Tory government simply cares more about landlords’ rights to their money than their tenants’ rights to a home.

On Tuesday, StepChange and Generation Rent, which represents private renters, wrote a joint open letter to Jenrick, expressing their concern about the end of the eviction ban. The two charities are calling on the government to accelerate plans to end Section 21 “no fault” evictions (which make it easier for landlords to evict tenants who have done nothing wrong); they also want temporary changes to the rules, to give courts the discretion to block evictions when rent arrears have built up owing to the economic effects of the pandemic.

It’s hard to see how the eviction ban won’t come to an end on 23 August. But parliament returns just nine days later: perhaps, with enough pressure, the government can be persuaded to address this problem then. If not, you can add “spike in homelessness” to the other terrors already pencilled in for this autumn.