It has now been more than 18 months since the government pledged to scrap no-fault evictions. At the time Theresa May, then prime minister, explained the decision by reminding us that “millions of responsible tenants could still be uprooted by their landlord with little notice, and often little justification”.
A no-fault eviction allows a landlord to give a tenant two months’ notice to leave, after which the landlord can seek a possession order from the courts to have them removed. Unlike in other countries and jurisdictions, landlords in England do not have to provide a reason for eviction, such as tenants breaking the rental contract by not paying rent, or the homeowner wanting to move back into the property.
The decision came as a surprise, even to those campaigning for a change in policy. The government moved quickly, opening a consultation in July 2019, and closing it three months later. The sense among campaigners and policy wonks was that, when the reform came through, landlords would lose their ability to evict without cause, but would be better enabled to evict for breaches of rental contracts.
A previous effort in 2014-15 to restrict the power of landlords to evict tenants who had lodged a complaint about the condition of their home was fiercely resisted by landlords. Two Conservative backbenchers managed to filibuster the government-supported Private Members’ bill, leaving civil servants to pick up the pieces.
The reforms were eventually incorporated into the 2015 Deregulation Act. They were toothless, however. The legislation required multiple warnings and an official notice to be served by a council to the landlord before the tenant was granted any protection. It gave landlords more than enough time to evict.
The delay this time seems to be a combination of competing priorities and inertia. Brexit dominated the policy agenda and parliamentary time throughout 2019. This led to a lack of progress on a range of domestic reforms, from the review of the Mental Health Act to the crisis in social care funding.
Still, the Conservative manifesto in 2019 promised to end Section 21, and a Renters’ Reform Bill was included in the Queen’s Speech. But the coronavirus pandemic engulfed any discussion of long-term reforms. This was despite the eviction reprieves granted by the government during the virus crisis – a tacit acknowledgment that eviction can be bad for your health.
Among this was the instability caused by a change in prime minister, government and not one, but two changes in housing minister. A recent announcement about boosting home-ownership highlighted how the government misunderstands the real problems facing Generation Rent, with Boris Johnson encouraging younger people to take out risky 95 per cent mortgages on housing they can barely afford.
The case against Section 21 has been made by campaigners, and government data shows it is the leading cause of homelessness. No-fault eviction can be used against tenants who complain about repairs (private rented housing is the poorest quality housing in the UK), or who challenge their landlord’s decisions about rent. In extreme cases, renters have talked about being pressured into sex with their landlord or have been turfed on to the street.
The reality is that, in a country with a housing shortage, the threat of eviction can be used against tenants, and particularly the most vulnerable among them. If the government is to deal with the ongoing housing crisis, Section 21 remains a key issue to solve.