Here’s why government plans for longer tenancies don’t go far enough

Rental property in London. Image: Getty.

When the modern private rental market was devised as part of the 1988 Housing Act, flexibility was the theme. If a landlord decided they no longer wanted to be a landlord, then they could use Section 21 of the Act to evict their tenants with two months’ notice, with no reason necessary, and cash in their investment.

In theory, this was balanced by flexibility for the tenant too – they could move out with minimal notice as well. But the Act failed to acknowledge the enormous power imbalance between landlord and tenant. If your tenant ends the tenancy, your business now needs to find a new customer. If your landlord ends the tenancy, you need to find a new home.

According to the latest English Housing Survey, 271,000 private renter households were asked to leave by their landlord in the past three years.

Whether we make the decision or not, moving house fills few of us with joy. Some landlords abuse our reluctance to attend a dispiriting series of flat viewings, then pack everything we own into boxes and haul them across town, by evicting tenants who make a fuss. The threat of a retaliatory eviction discourages tenants from complaining and results in a tenure where the EHS found 28 per cent of homes failed decency tests.

The power imbalance is so wide that when the Conservatives stopped thinking of housing simply in terms of home ownership and started making moves to improve renting, revenge evictions were the first thing they agreed to outlaw.

But the protections for tenants under the resulting Deregulation Act 2015 came with heavy caveats. First, the landlord must be doing something illegal – namely letting out a property which contains serious hazards. Second, the local council must serve an improvement notice on the landlord before the tenant gets protection from a no-fault eviction. Third, that protection lapses after six months. Finally, a landlord can get around all of that by just putting the rent up so high the tenant is forced to move.

Now it appears that few tenants are getting the protection they’re entitled to. We looked at Freedom of Information data gathered from the 100 councils with the largest private renter populations – approximately two-thirds of the total in England – and published our findings last month.

Of the 72 councils that recorded “Category 1” hazards in 2016-17 (28 didn’t), a total of 12,962 were found. Yet the councils only took appropriate enforcement action in 2366 cases – meaning that just 18 per cent of tenants had protection from a revenge eviction. Only eight councils in total issued as many improvement notices as hazards they identified. And just four councils recorded cases where a Section 21 eviction notice was served on tenants who’d complained.


It is no secret that local councils are strapped for cash, which might explain why there is so much poor practice. But tenants should not have to live in the right town to have the confidence to complain. A flaky, fiddly and temporary system of protection is not enough to deliver safe and secure homes.

That is one of many reasons why Generation Rent is campaigning alongside the London Renters Union, ACORN and the New Economics Foundation to abolish Section 21.

Last week the government published its long-awaited consultation on longer tenancies. It proposes to replace the 1988 model with three-year tenancies, retaining the ability of the tenant to move out after six months. But the government has undermined this progress by letting amateur landlords keep their flexibility, allowing them to take back a property in the three years if they want to sell or move back in. According to last year’s EHS, 63 per cent of private sector evictions take place for these reasons.

A three-year tenancy with limited grounds for eviction should at least give tenants greater confidence to complain. But that’s not enough. They should also have the knowledge that, so long as they meet their legal obligations, the home is theirs. If landlords can evict a blameless tenant, the rental market will keep failing to provide the certainty we associate with home.

Ending Section 21 would still allow evictions if a tenant breaks the contract. If a landlord wants to sell, that’s fine, but they should sell to another landlord, with the tenants staying put – or to the tenants themselves. If they want somewhere to live, they can rent.

The government’s consultation is a huge opportunity to make renting a genuine alternative to owner occupation. The EHS reports that 2.7m private renter households expect to buy eventually – yet fewer than 1m have more than £5000 in savings towards a deposit. That leaves a lot of people who will be denied the stability they crave for years to come. By abolishing Section 21 the government would give renters a stable home now.

Dan Wilson Craw is director of Generation Rent.

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Academics are mapping the legacy of slavery in Britain’s cities

A detail of the Legacies of British Slave-ownership map showing central Bristol. Image: LBS/UCL.

For 125 years, a statue of the 17th century slave-trader Edward Colston stood in the centre of Bristol, ostensibly to commemorate the philanthropy he’d used his blood money to fund. Then, on 7 June, Black Lives Matter protesters pulled it down and threw it into the harbour

The incident has served to shine a light on the benefits Bristol and other British cities reaped from the Atlantic slave trade. Grand houses and public buildings in London, Liverpool, Glasgow and beyond were also funded by the profits made from ferrying enslaved Africans across the ocean. But because the horrors of that trade happened elsewhere, the role it played in building modern Britain is not something we tend to discuss.

Now a team at University College London is trying to change that. The Legacies of British Slave-Ownership project is mapping every British address linked to a slave-owner. In all, its database contains 5,229 addresses, linked to 5,586 individuals (some addresses are linked to more than one slave owner; some slave owners had more than one home). 

The map is not exact. Streets have often been renumbered; for some individuals, only a city is known, not necessarily an address; and at time of writing, only around 60% of known addresses (3,294 out of 5,229) have been added to the map. But by showing how many addresses it has recorded in each area, it gives some sense of which bits of the UK benefited most from the slave trade; the blue pins, meanwhile, reflect individual addresses, which you can click for more details.

The map shows, for example, that although it’s Glasgow that’s been noisily grappling with this history of late, there were probably actually more slave owners in neighbouring Edinburgh, the centre of Scottish political and financial power.

Liverpool, as an Atlantic port, benefited far more from the trade than any other northern English city.

But the numbers were higher in Bristol and Bath; and much, much higher in and around London.

 

Other major UK cities – Birmingham, Manchester, Leeds, Newcastle – barely appear. Which is not to say they didn’t also benefit from the Triangular Trade (with its iron and weaponry industries, Professor David Dabydeen of Warwick University said in 2007, “Birmingham armed the slave trade”) – merely that they benefited in a less direct way.

The LBS map, researcher Rachel Lang explained via email, is “a never-ending task – we’re always adding new people to the database and finding out more about them”. Nonetheless, “The map shows broadly what we expected to find... We haven’t focused on specific areas of Britain so I think the addresses we’ve mapped so far are broadly representative.” 

The large number in London, she says, reflect its importance as a financial centre. Where more specific addresses are available, “you can see patterns that reflect the broader social geography”. The high numbers of slave-owners in Bloomsbury, for example, reflects merchants’ desire for property convenient to the City of London in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, when the district was being developed. Meanwhile, “there are widows and spinsters with slave property living in suburbs and outlying villages such as Chelsea and Hampstead. Country villas surround London.” 


“What we perhaps didn’t expect to see was that no areas are entirely without slave owners,” Lang adds. “They are everywhere from the Orkney Islands to Penzance. It also revealed clusters in unexpected places – around Inverness and Cromarty, for example, and the Isle of Wight.” No area of Britain was entirely free of links to the slave trade.

 You can explore the map here.

Jonn Elledge was founding editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.

All images courtesy of LBS/UCL