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Opinion

Ministers promised to ban no fault evictions in 2019. So why haven’t they?

Evictions have continued through the pandemic, at a time when they could literally endanger lives, and the government’s only response has been to issue short-term bans, writes Jonn Elledge.

On 15 April 2019, the government promised to end “no fault evictions”. No longer would landlords be able to issue a Section 21 notice, evicting renters at short notice for any reason whatsoever. Tenants would feel more secure in their rented homes, and able to complain about problems without worrying that asking their landlord to, say, fix that gaping hole in their roof would result in a revenge eviction. The sun would come out. The future was bright. Everything was going to be alright.

That was two years ago. A lot of things have happened since. Britain has finally left the European Union. Donald Trump has left the White House. We’ve all been trapped inside by a global pandemic, and Lil Nas X has redefined pop music with Old Town Road.

Something that hasn’t happened, however, is the UK government banning no fault evictions. No fault evictions remain very much unbanned.

More than that: they are still in enthusiastic use. A survey, commissioned by Generation Rent, conducted by Survation and published this week, indicates that 8 per cent of private renters in England have received a Section 21 notice in the past year alone. That is a year, you may recall, in which Covid has been raging, and the entire country has spent months under house arrest, a state of affairs which makes it pretty important for people to actually have a house: yet as many as 700,000 renters, one in eight of the total, have received no fault eviction notices.

There’s more. The same survey found that 32 per cent of renters were concerned about the possibility of their landlord asking them to move out this year. That, if accurate, would translate to 2.8m renters who are worried they’re going to lose their homes.

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In some way, with this latter figure, the surprising thing isn’t that it’s so high but that it’s so low. The reason no fault evictions are so damaging is because, once a fixed term of a tenancy has ended, landlords can ask their tenants to leave at any time without giving a reason. They render renting inherently unstable: you can’t build a life, make friends and select schools based on the idea you will stay in a particular place, when you know you can be thrown out at any time. And it can affect anyone.

All of which leads me to suspect that that 32 per cent figure is not the actual proportion of respondents who are at risk of no fault eviction, it’s merely the proportion who are actually aware of it.

Why hasn’t the government made good on its promise? The less cynical reading is that it has rather had its hands full, with an election, Brexit and a pandemic. Despite the change of Prime Minister in July 2019, it claims it remains committed to the idea of reforming renting: last November, some 19 months after it pledged to end Section 21, a written answer from housing minister Chris Pincher said that the promised bill would happen “in due course once the urgencies of responding to the pandemic has passed”.

But this feels like a pretty weak response. Evictions have continued through the pandemic, at a time when they could literally endanger lives, and the government’s only response has been to issue short-term bans. The problem remains, and Covid has not made solving it any less urgent: quite the opposite. It is not asking too much to expect the government to multitask.

To keep the pressure up, 20 different groups – including Generation Rent, Crisis, and Shelter – have joined together to form the Renters Reform Coalition, which will campaign to make sure ministers make good on their two-year old promise. Whether that’ll be enough to move a government that clearly feels no urgency about the plight of renters remains an open question.

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