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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“Every twitch, breath or thought necessitates a contactless tap”: on the rise of the chain conffeeshop as public space

Mmmm caffeine. Image: Getty.

If you visit Granary Square in Kings Cross or the more recent neighbouring development, Coal Drops Yard, you will find all the makings of a public space: office-workers munching on their lunch-break sandwiches, exuberant toddlers dancing in fountains and the expected spread of tourists.

But the reality is positively Truman Show-esque. These are just a couple examples of privately owned public spaces, or “POPS”,  which – in spite of their deceptively endearing name – are insidiously changing our city’s landscape right beneath us.

The fear is that it is often difficult to know when you are in one, and what that means for your rights. But as well as those places the private sector pretends to be public space, the inverse is equally common, and somewhat less discussed. Often citizens, use clearly private amenities like they are public. And this is never more prevalent than in the case of big-chain coffeeshops.

It goes without saying that London is expensive: often it feels like every twitch, breath or thought necessitates a contactless tap. This is where Starbucks, Pret and Costa come in. Many of us find an alternative in freeloading off their services: a place to sit, free wifi when your data is low, or an easily accessible toilet when you are about in the city. It feels like a passive-aggressive middle-finger to the hole in my pocket, only made possible by the sheer size of these companies, which allows us to go about unnoticed. Like a feature on a trail map, it’s not just that they function as public spaces, but are almost universally recognised as such, peppering our cityscapes like churches or parks.

Shouldn’t these services really be provided by the council, you may cry? Well ideally, yes – but also no, as they are not under legal obligation to do so and in an era of austerity politics, what do you really expect? UK-wide, there has been a 13 per cent drop in the number of public toilets between 2010 and 2018; the London boroughs of Wandsworth and Bromley no longer offer any public conveniences.  


For the vast majority of us, though, this will be at most a nuisance, as it is not so much a matter of if but rather when we will have access to the amenities we need. Architectural historian Ian Borden has made the point that we are free citizens in so far as we shop or work. Call it urban hell or retail heaven, but the fact is that most of us do regularly both of these things, and will cope without public spaces on a day to day. But what about those people who don’t?

It is worth asking exactly what public spaces are meant to be. Supposedly they are inclusive areas that are free and accessible to all. They should be a place you want to be, when you have nowhere else to be. A space for relaxation, to build a community or even to be alone.

So, there's an issue: it's that big-chain cafes rarely meet this criterion. Their recent implementation of codes on bathroom doors is a gentle reminder that not all are welcome, only those that can pay or at least, look as if they could. Employees are then given the power to decide who can freeload and who to turn away. 

This is all too familiar, akin to the hostile architecture implemented in many of our London boroughs. From armrests on benches to spikes on windowsills, a message is sent that you are welcome, just so long as you don’t need to be there. This amounts to nothing less than social exclusion and segregation, and it is homeless people that end up caught in this crossfire.

Between the ‘POPS’ and the coffee shops, we are squeezed further by an ever-growing private sector and a public sector in decline. Gentrification is not just about flat-whites, elaborate facial hair and fixed-gear bikes: it’s also about privatisation and monopolies. Just because something swims like a duck and quacks like a duck that doesn’t mean it is a duck. The same can be said of our public spaces.