Blog: The private tenancies bill: one step closer to genuine security of tenure?
As the Private Housing (Tenancies) (Scotland) Bill moves at a pace through the infrastructure and capital investment committee, James Battye, policy officer at Shelter Scotland, discusses how things will change for the 330,000 households renting from private landlords across Scotland.
Encouragingly, we’ve seen broad support for increasing security of tenure on the committee and some carefully considered recommendations seeking to improve the draft legislation.
How has the bill changed?
At stage 2 the committee considered a whopping 198(!) amendments to the bill, many of which introduce significant changes to the bill:
- The initial period – previously fixed at six months – has now been scrapped by the government. Instead the private residential tenancy will effectively be indefinite from the beginning, increasing flexibility for tenants.
- The eviction ground for rent arrears is tightened slightly: now tenants must be in arrears of at least one month’s rent at the date of the tribunal hearing if a landlord wishes to seek a mandatory eviction. We’re concerned that this is far too low a threshold.
- The tribunal is able to seek greater proof from landlords who wish to use the grounds which relate to a landlord’s intention: for example they may be required to provide a written statement, signed by a solicitor, that they intend to live in the property. A positive move, but without a reasonableness test unfair evictions may still take place.
- The grounds for eviction which relate to a breach of a tenancy term, a landlord’s registration ceasing, an HMO license being revoked and an overcrowding statutory notice being served on the landlord are also all made discretionary. All of which are important protections from arbitrary eviction.
- The fine for a landlord “wrongfully terminating” a tenancy is increased from three to six months rents.
- Purpose built student accommodation is to be exempt from the new tenancy: questions now need to be asked about whether the repairing standard and the ban on letting agent fees will apply to students who rent from these types of accommodation providers.
Is this enough to deliver protection from arbitrary eviction?
So, some positive movement on the grounds for possession, the initial period and the ground for eviction for rent arrears. But does this go far enough to ensure genuine security of tenure for private tenants? From our perspective, not quite yet.
To ensure that real stability and certainty for families, young renters and those living in the sector long-term is introduced by this legislation the bill needs further scrutiny between now and stage 3. In particular the Scottish Government should:
- Give the tribunal additional flexibility to consider whether an eviction order is reasonable in all the circumstances, ensuring the grounds for eviction are not simply a ‘tick box’ exercise, in particular where grounds for eviction relate to the intention of a landlord. On this it was encouraging to hear the Minister respond positively to David Stewart MSP’s concerns.
- Review the rent arrear grounds, for private tenants who experience a sudden drop in income, does the bill provide them with enough protection from eviction? We believe a threshold of three months would give tenants a firm protection against eviction.
- Give tenants the ability to challenge initial rents where they believe they are out of step with the local market, as well as rent increases.
There is, then, some way to go.
Would this be a huge step-change in private renting? Yes, of course it would. But we need to see the sector primarily as a provider of homes as the demographics of private renters in Scotland change and expectations shift. To have an ever-growing sector with insecure and shaky tenancy rights justified by the need to prop up individuals’ investments would be bad for tenants, and the feeling of disempowerment among so many of today’s private renters will only persist.
This is our chance to get that right: we need to make sure this bill delivers the step-change so sorely needed for the thousands of private renters across Scotland who can’t confidently say they have absolute certainty that they can stay in their homes for as long as they need.