Happy 30th birthday to Section 21 of the Housing Act! Please die soon

Properties to rent. Image: Getty.

On this day in 1988, the UK’s Housing Act received Royal Assent, deregulating the private rental market and laying the ground for the tenancy system we know today.

It will be a lonely 30th birthday for the legislation. Given the chance, its fellow millennials would not provide a good-natured round of The Bumps. In fact, we’d rather fling it out of the window.

Section 21 of the Act gives landlords the ability to evict tenants without needing a reason. This has made renting both the only option for millions of people – and an inadequate tenure that most are desperate to escape.

By making it easier to empty homes of their tenants, Section 21 made residential property a lot more liquid an asset. As you could cash in when you felt like it. That meant becoming a landlord was no longer a massive commitment, so it became more attractive to amateurs with money to invest. The ensuing buy-to-let boom resulted in the private renter population more than doubling.

Investors effectively outbid would-be first-time buyers, then let out the properties they snapped up to the same people. Since the 1990s, house prices have risen from around four times incomes to eight times, but the desire for home ownership remains; most renters still expect to buy a home in the future.

The reasons for their disloyalty to their current tenure are not hard to fathom. Section 21 means that tenants can comply with their contract to the letter and still be asked to leave with just two months’ notice and no assistance in finding a new home. Nearly two thirds of evictions happen because the landlord wants to sell or use the property, according to the English Housing Survey.

If a council considers an evicted tenant to be unintentionally homeless, and in priority need, it has a duty to rehouse them – but in many cases the only option is to put them up in temporary accommodation, which costs. Such accommodation cost taxpayers nearly £1bn last year.

Even if you never receive a Section 21 notice, the threat of one always looms, so that renters never know where they will live next year. There is none of the confidence about investing time to decorate their homes or get involved in the local community that social tenants and owner-occupiers enjoy. The effect is infantilising, but also leads to the appalling levels of disrepair in private rented homes. One in seven are considered unsafe – if landlords could not credibly threaten an eviction or rent hike if their tenant complains about mould or cold, then that number wouldn’t be nearly so high.


And, not that it’s an excuse, but the private rented sector is no longer dominated by the itinerant and strapping students and young professionals of lore. One in four children now lives in the tenure, while the average age of a private renter is 40. The law that governs the sector fails to reflect its customers’ needs so desperately needs updating. Policymakers’ assumption should be that private tenants need and deserve stable homes as much as any other tenure.

This is why we need to end Section 21. In its place we would have open-ended tenancies that give tenants the flexibility to move out if their circumstances change, but restrict landlords’ ability to evict, by requiring them to prove the grounds to do so.

A list of valid grounds is already set out in Section 8 of the Housing Act. If a landlord needed to repossess from tenants who were not at fault, they would need to make a relocation payment to mitigate the upheaval they faced. And rent rises would be limited to wage inflation to prevent landlords sidestepping new rules by raising it to unaffordable levels.

Amid the unfolding drama of Brexit, the likelihood of a snap election is growing, and contenders for power must offer something to the millions of renters who are the 1988 act’s legacy. To give them some inspiration, the End Unfair Evictions campaign is asking renters on social media to #ReinventYourRent on today’s anniversary. Our bank balances and mental health cannot tolerate any more of this outdated law.

Dan Wilson Craw is director of Generation Rent.

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The Fire Brigades Union’s statement on Theresa May’s resignation is completely damning

Grenfell Tower. Image: Getty.

Just after 10 this morning, Theresa May announced that she would resign as Britain’s prime minister on 7 June. A mere half an hour later, a statement from Royal Institute of British Architects president Ben Derbyshire arrived in my inbox with a ping:

“The news that Theresa May will step down as Prime Minister leaves the country in limbo while the clock ticks down to the latest deadline of 31 October. While much is uncertain, one thing remains clear – a no deal is no option for architecture or the wider construction sector. Whoever becomes the next Prime Minister must focus on taking the country forward with policies beyond Brexit that tackle the major challenges facing the country such as the housing crisis and climate change emergency.”

I was a bit baffled by this – why would the architecture profession try to get its thoughts into a political story? But then Merlin Fulcher of Architects Journal put me right:

Well you know construction is a larger contributor to GDP than financial services, and most of the work UK architects do is for export, and at least half of the largest practice (Foster + Partners) are EU, so there's a lot at stake

— Merlin Fulcher (@merlinfulcher) May 24, 2019

So, the thoughts of the RIBA president are an entirely legitimate thing to send to any construction sector-adjacent journalists who might be writing about today’s big news, and frankly I felt a little silly.

Someone else who should be feeling more than a little silly, though, is Theresa May herself. When listing her government’s achievements, such as they were, she included, setting up “the independent public inquiry into the tragedy at Grenfell Tower” – a fire in a West London public housing block in June 2017 – “to search for the truth, so nothing like it can ever happen again, and so the people who lost their lives that night are never forgotten”.

Matt Wrack, general secretary of the Fire Brigades Union, is having precisely none of this. Here’s his statement:

“Many of the underlying issues at Grenfell were due to unsafe conditions that had been allowed to fester under Tory governments and a council for which Theresa May bears ultimate responsibility. The inquiry she launched has kicked scrutiny of corporate and government interests into the long-grass, denying families and survivors justice, while allowing business as usual to continue for the wealthy. For the outgoing Prime Minister to suggest that her awful response to Grenfell is a proud part of her legacy is, frankly, disgraceful.”

A total of 72 people died in the Grenfell fire. At time of writing, nobody has been prosecuted.

Jonn Elledge is editor of CityMetric and the assistant editor of the New Statesman. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.

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