Tenancy reform is good – but it’s not enough for low-income renters
Louise Heath
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Across the UK, private rented housing is unaffordable, insecure, and unsafe for too many tenants. In 2017, Scotland introduced major private renting reforms aiming to rebalance power relations between landlords and tenants, so that tenants could better assert their rights, challenge rent rises, and ask for repairs.
At the Nationwide Foundation charity, we believe that much can be learned from this experience. That’s why we are pleased to fund the RentBetter project by Indigo House, which is gathering longitudinal evidence to understand how the changes in Scotland are impacting tenants and landlords. The first wave of the research found that the changes were beneficial for tenants in general.
The wave two findings, published in April 2022, focus on the experiences of tenants on lower incomes and those in housing need. These findings come at a useful time, as the Scottish government develops its plans for further tenancy legislation in 2024, and the government in Westminster has just announced a Renters Reform Bill to deliver ‘once in a generation’ change for renters.
The research shows that more needs to be done to support low-income private renters to ensure that they are able to benefit in practice from increased legislative rights. The evidence from Scotland shows that tenancy reform in isolation is not enough to adequately improve security, property conditions and affordability for this group of renters. The weak market power of tenants on low incomes means that they still fear asking for repairs or challenging their landlord because of reprisals like rent rises or, worse, eviction, when their access to other housing options is severely limited.
The First-tier Tribunal (Housing and Property Chamber) (FtT) in Scotland was set up to take pressure off the courts from housing cases. But just four per cent of all applications to Scotland’s FtT in 2019–20 were for repairs (see page 29 of the wave two final report), despite the private rented sector having the worst conditions of all tenure types in Scotland, suggesting that the system does not sufficiently enable tenants to bring forward repairs cases. It’s also concerning that the researchers spoke to a tenant who was evicted after successfully taking the landlord to tribunal regarding repairs. The eviction notice used repossession Ground 1 under Private Housing (Tenancies) (Scotland) Act 2016 (landlord selling the property – a mandatory ground at the time), yet soon after he had moved out, the property was relet to new tenants.
Local authorities and the courts and tribunals system should ensure that renters’ rights are upheld in Scotland and the rest of the UK, but it’s clear that they require more capacity and resources to meet demand. The private renting enforcement system must target poor standards at the bottom of the market, where low-income tenants have less power to challenge landlords.
In England, a new ombudsman was announced in the Queen’s speech to support private renters to get repairs done and take pressure off the courts. Unless this ombudsman is well-resourced to meet demand, and simple and accessible for renters, the evidence coming from Scotland suggests that it will struggle to deliver improvements for tenants. There are protections from revenge eviction in England if private renters contact their local council about unsafe property conditions in their home, and similar protections are needed when going through the ombudsman. Otherwise, it will be a risky move for renters to seek redress in this way and few will do so.
In England’s forthcoming reforms, the government should ensure safeguards for tenants where property sale or landlord/family moving in repossession grounds are used, to prevent revenge eviction by the back door. The Renters Reform Coalition suggests that reform should include protection from these grounds being used for two years from the start of a tenancy; requiring a high level of evidence from the landlord for the grounds to be used; and a compensation payment to tenants evicted under these grounds.
Independent information and early advice are critical to help renters better understand and exercise their rights but, worryingly, the study found evidence of reducing provision in face-to-face Scottish advice services over the last three years. This decline began even before the pandemic. It’s clear that more investment in advice services in Scotland and the rest of the UK will improve the ability of private renters to realise their rights.
While the reforms in Scotland have improved the rights of private renters overall, the RentBetter research demonstrates that improving the rights and experiences of private renters on low incomes across the UK nations is complex and will require addressing challenges that sit beyond the confines of private renting policy. In addition to better resourcing of the enforcement systems and advice services, governments must tackle the challenges of precarious low-paid work, the barriers of the benefit system, and the wider cost of living. In the long term, a significant increase in social housing is needed across all nations so that the needs of financially vulnerable private renters can be better met.

About the author(s)

Description: Hannah Slater - author
Hannah Slater is programme manager of Transforming the Private Rented Sector at the Nationwide Foundation.