It had been heavily anticipated in the media beforehand that the Tory Party conference – back in-person in Manchester this year – would finally flesh out the details of the much-speculated plans for rental reform.
But, as it turned out, landlords, agents, and the industry could breathe easy for a little while longer, as the programme of reform continues to remain on ice.
At a fringe meeting during the conference, Eddie Hughes – a housing and homelessness minister at the newly rebranded Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, who kept his job during the recent brutal reshuffle – said the White Paper on rental reform may still be some time away, saying he and colleagues ‘are still in the middle of meetings and consultations’.
He said that his team were still ‘in roundtables’ and virtual events speaking with stakeholders, adding: “We’re reaching out to all elements of the sector to try to make sure there are no unintended consequences.”
He told the event, organised by campaigning charity Shelter and the Onward think tank: “We want to get this right. For example, if we start from a position of ‘Landlords Bad/Tenants Good’, the approach might be too stringent for landlords, and they’ll be forced out of the market. We don’t want that.”
However, Hughes would not be drawn on whether the White Paper would call for a mandatory landlord register.
“I’m not ruling anything in or out,” he said, while also wanting to ensure councils had a better understanding of how many landlords operated in their areas.
He confirmed that there would be a lifetime deposit system enabling tenants to move more quickly and easily between rented homes. The White Paper would look at Section 21, which the Government has strongly hinted before that it would scrap. However, he also made it clear that eviction powers for landlords remained essential in principle, with appropriate safeguards.
He described the White Paper and the consequent legislation – expected to be known as the Renters’ Reform Bill – as ‘a very significant piece of policy’.
What is the background to rental reform?
The idea of wide-ranging rental reform, representing the most significant changes to the market in a generation, has been in the offing for some years now. The Conservative Party first mentioned it in its manifesto for the December 2019 general election as part of its pledge for a better deal for renters. That year’s Queen’s Speech said it would bring forward legislation in 2020 to enact rental reform, but the Covid-19 pandemic put this business on hold for an indefinite period.
This was then backed up in the Government’s latest Queen’s Speech back in May, which included a broad pledge for rental reform and the announcement of a White Paper this autumn. Since then, there have been mutterings, conjecture and speculation about when rental reform might come and what could be included in it. No fixed date was ever given for the release of the White Paper, and it now seems likely this will be delivered towards the end of the year, or potentially in 2022.
This follows a more specific pledge, made in April 2019 by the Theresa May Government, that the Government would be consulting on plans to abolish Section 21, so-called ‘no-fault evictions’ and beefing up Section 8 notices as an alternative.
Since then, though, despite Boris Johnson’s Government broadly echoing that pledge, there has been little movement on scrapping Section 21 outright – and the opposition from the industry to this change is significant.
The coronavirus crisis has undoubtedly held things up. Still, the situation is eerily reminiscent of the long-winded introduction of the ban on letting agent fees to tenants, which took years to introduce.
Even once the White Paper has been released and debated, it is likely to be some time before the legislation is ironed out and put before Parliament. It is unlikely to have a smooth journey through the Commons and Lords even once it reaches them, with opposition to widespread rental reform likely from many quarters.
There now seems less prospect than ever of anything more being learned this year about the proposals for rental reform. Some in the industry may be frustrated by the lack of clarity on offer, but others will no doubt be breathing a sigh of relief that things will remain as they are for now.
Despite the speculation, we came away from the Conservative Party conference knowing little more about the Government’s plans for rental reform than we did before the Manchester event started.
Aside from the fringe event focused on rental reform, which didn’t reveal much new, there was little else from a lettings perspective. Again, landlords and agents may be relieved after several years in which the Government announced new legislation and regulation at major political events.
Until the content of the White Paper – which is expected to inform the final version of the Renters’ Reform Bill – is known, the industry can only continue to speculate.
That said, Hughes did give some clear hints of what the paper will include, with lifetime deposits and Section 21 likely to feature heavily in any future legislation – while it’s less clear if a mandatory register will be introduced.