Section 21 notices – served by landlords to evict their tenants – have long proved controversial. Often labelled as so-called ‘no-fault evictions’, because landlords don’t have to provide a reason for repossession, the scrapping of Section 21 has been supported by the current government and the Theresa May-led government before it.
However, coronavirus has massively slowed this process down, meaning Section 21 evictions won’t be abolished until at least 2021 and potentially beyond.
Here, we look at why the government wants to scrap Section 21 and the various obstacles being placed in the way, as well as analysing the latest situation with evictions in light of Covid-19.
How did we get to this point?
In April 2019, the then-Housing Secretary James Brokenshire made the shock announcement that the government was planning to scrap Section 21 notices entirely – hailed as a victory for tenant rights campaigners, lobbyists and politicians who had been pushing for such a move. By contrast, landlords and industry bodies were up in arms about the potential damage such a plan could cause.
The changes, personally backed by Theresa May, were described by Brokenshire as ‘the biggest change to the private rental sector in a generation’. Under the new rules, he said, landlords would need to provide a ‘concrete, evidenced reason already specified in law’ if they wanted to end tenancies, and would have to turn to a Section 8 notice rather than a Section 21.
Just a few months later, of course, May and Brokenshire had both gone, replaced by Boris Johnson and Robert Jenrick respectively, but any hopes of a change in heart from the new top team in charge were soon quashed.
In the Conservative Party’s 2019 election manifesto, as part of its plans to bring in a Better Deal for Renters, it said it was committed to abolishing ‘no fault’ evictions to create a fairer rental market. Such a change would protect tenants from revenge evictions and rogue landlords, while also strengthening the rights of possession for the many good landlords, the document said.
Detail was thin on the ground, but following the Tories’ decisive election win last December, it introduced the Renters’ Reform Bill as part of the Queen’s Speech. This set out a number of pledges to provide a ‘better deal for renters’, with the standout policy being the removal of Section 21 from the Housing Act 1988.
It was expected that the Bill would pass through Parliament quickly and with little opposition, as political parties of all stripes backed the ending of Section 21. Covid-19, however, had other ideas, putting nearly all non-coronavirus related legislation on the backburner for a considerable period of time.
Before the pandemic took hold, the government said the Bill would be introduced to Parliament ‘when time allows’. But now it appears as if the legislation will be pushed back significantly, with civil servants preoccupied with managing both the impact of coronavirus and the end of the Brexit transition period. There is simply not the time or resources to dedicate to anything else at the moment.
In September, Housing Minister Christopher Pincher made reference to this in the Commons: “We will do that [introduce the Renters’ Reform Bill] at the appropriate time when there is a sensible and stable economic and social terrain on which to do it.”
This suggests a potentially long delay for the implementation of the Renters' Reform Bill, but Thangam Debbonaire, Labour’s Shadow Housing Secretary, said the legislation simply ‘cannot wait’.
“The situation facing renters couldn’t be more urgent. Lifting the ban on evictions as we head into a second Covid spike is irresponsible and a betrayal of their promise that no renter will lose their home because of coronavirus,” she commented. “Renters are being served Section 21 notices, leading to automatic evictions, as we speak.”
While it seems certain that the Bill will be introduced at some point, with the political will there from all sides to do it, landlords have been given a reprieve – and potentially a long-term one – for the time being. It should be remembered that the Tenant Fees Act, the divisive legislation which bans nearly all upfront agent fees and caps deposits, took more than three years to become law – and at one point seemed like it might never come into play.
That legislation was introduced when there was nothing of the magnitude of coronavirus or managing Britain’s smooth exit from the EU at play.
Still, landlords need to be aware of the changes proposed by the Bill, which many in the industry fear will make it far more difficult for landlords to regain possession of their property.
Section 8 can be used when a tenant has fallen into rent arrears, been involved in criminal or anti-social behaviour or broken the terms of their tenancy agreement, but these notices can be challenged much more easily than Section 21.
The government has previously insisted that it will amend Section 8 to enable it to be used by landlords if they want to move back in themselves or sell their rental property, while a spokesman for the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government previously pledged that ‘court processes will be expedited so landlords are able to swiftly and smoothly regain their property in the rare event of tenants falling into rent arrears or damaging the property’. This was seen as an attempt to reassure anxious, angry landlords that disputes would be resolved quickly when required.
With no parliamentary timetable for its introduction, it’s impossible to say with any certainty when the Bill might become law, but history suggests it won’t be immediate and it seems highly unlikely that any changes will be introduced before the second half of next year.
A different set of rules
At present, of course, the eviction process looks very different thanks to Covid-19. The ban on evictions, introduced in mid-March, was only lifted on September 20 and there is a huge backlog in the courts.
There will also be a festive evictions truce, to ensure no-one loses their home over the Christmas period, lasting from December 11 to January 11. During this time, letting agents and landlords will be unable to instruct bailiffs to complete evictions.
In addition, guidance has also been issued to bailiffs saying that they should not enforce possession orders in places where local lockdowns are in place, which currently includes parts of Leicester, Bolton, Greater Manchester and the North East, North West, West Midlands and West Yorkshire. The number of areas in some form of local lockdown is expected to expand as coronavirus cases continue to rise.
Landlords must currently give tenants a six-month notice period when starting eviction proceedings, meaning that no tenant will find themselves evicted before March next year.
There are exceptions to this, however, including tenants who have not paid rent for more than six months, and ‘the most egregious cases’ cited by the government, such as anti-social behaviour and domestic violence.
For the moment, then, letting agents can tell landlords to rest easy on Section 21 notices being scrapped completely – as that won’t happen for some time yet – but they must still be aware of these changes and all the current rules regarding evictions during the pandemic.