What will be the impact of new housing legislation?
Questions remain over whether the Housing Act will make housing accessible, especially for those most in need, says Debra Wilson
On 12 May 2016, the Housing and Planning Act, described as one of the most controversial legislative changes in recent times, gained royal assent. The Act came about as part of the Conservative party's 2015 manifesto commitment to address a crisis in affordable housing supply, with the aim of building one million homes by 2020. In essence, the legislation covers:
Replacing lifetime secure tenancies with tenancies lasting between two to five years;
'Pay to stay', meaning that fairer rents are to be charged to those tenants on incomes sufficient to pay a higher rent;
Extension of the 'right to buy' scheme to include housing association properties;
Forced sale of high-value empty local authority properties;
Speeding up planning laws;
Building of starter homes;
Imposing banning orders on rogue landlords and agents;
Strengthening the requirements to hold house in multiple occupation licences;
Changes to rent repayment orders so that tenants can apply without first securing a prosecution through the local authority; and
Recovery of abandoned properties without a court order.
Questions remain, however, over how key elements of the changes will be funded, and the possible impact on the stability of home ownership and accessibility to affordable homes. The Act lacks detail about matters such as whether expected sales of vacant council stock will generate sufficient income to pay for an extension to the right to buy.
It has also managed to pass through a change which will replace the security of renting a council home as a lifetime proposition with an arrangement that will be reviewed every two or five years. This radical change has come about with very little fanfare, perhaps due to the fact the impact will have no real significance for existing council tenancies, only future ones.
A number of the changes are well-meaning safeguards. But criticism of the legislation as being 'half baked' comes to mind, particularly as regards protection in cases of abandoned properties.
The Act allows landlords to serve warning notices on premises considered abandoned, particularly if this is evidenced by rent not having been paid for at least two months. While there is a prescribed route to recovery before the landlord can repossess, there is concern
over the possible lack of independent verification that
a property is abandoned.
Only when a tenant is evicted can they find redress by applying to the court for relief. If experience is relied upon, someone who is evicted and vulnerable is most unlikely to challenge a landlord to get their tenancy reinstated.
Meanwhile, a briefing paper from Shelter cited cases of abandonment of properties as being fewer than 2,000 a year, representing 0.04 per cent of the private rented sector. Arguably this is a drastic solution for a relatively minor problem, which could have far-reaching implications for vulnerable tenants.
While tenants can apply to the court for reinstatement if there are good reasons why they did not respond to a notice, it is unclear whether the court could order a landlord to reinstate if they had already re-let the property. The lack of public funding may mean considerable injustice is caused to tenants finding themselves locked out through an alleged abandonment incident.
Only with the passage of time can the usefulness of such proposals, along with the rather sketchy proposals designed to increase housing supply, be gauged. SJ
Debra Wilson is a solicitor and partner at Anthony Gold. She is a Law Society housing committee member who worked on the Housing and Planning Act during its passage