Private Tenancies Bill amendments ‘welcome, but not enough’, say campaigners

Living Rent CampaignThe Scottish Government has passed amendments to its Private Tenancies Bill to strengthen its proposed rent control laws, though campaigners have warned that ministers need to go further to ensure protections for vulnerable tenants are guaranteed under the new legislation.

The Private Housing (Tenancies) (Scotland) Bill plans to grant local authorities the ability apply temporary, local rent controls in designated ‘rent pressure zones’. However, before they can implement rent controls, local authorities would need to apply to Scottish ministers for permission to use the new powers.

During a Stage 2 consideration of the bill by the Scottish Parliament’s infrastructure and capital investment committee on February 10, an amendment was lodged by Patrick Harvie MSP that would give ministers a three month deadline for responding to a council’s application to designate ‘rent pressure zones’, and to set out any reasons for refusing permission.

Under the current form of the bill, ministers would not be required to take a decision on a ‘rent pressure zone’ application in any given time period, meaning tenants could be left facing months or even years of rent increases before action was taken.

Housing minister Margaret Burgess welcomed the Scottish Greens co-convenor’s amendment, and agreed to the principle of a time limit, which will be agreed before the bill is passed.

An amendment to shorten the notice period a tenant has to give to landlords to leave a property was also passed by the committee. Also lodged by Mr Harvie, and supported by Citizen’s Advice, the amendment will bring greater flexibility for tenants in precarious circumstances, where they need to move at short notice for work or bereavement.

The committee also voted to scrap the ‘six month minimum term’ that would have locked tenants into the tenancy at the start of their lease.

Campaigners have welcomed the amendments but accused the SNP of passing up on an opportunity to ensure vulnerable tenants are protected from evictions that would cause them hardship.

Living Rent expressed concerns over the party’s “ambivalent stance” on defences against hardship proposed by Labour MSP David Stewart at stage 2 of the bill.

While housing minister Margaret Burgess offered to discuss David Stewart MSP’s proposal to exercise reasonableness in eviction proceedings, his amendment to enable housing tribunals to take into account hardship faced by tenants in eviction decisions was voted down.

Campaigners also criticised committee members for the decision to exclude tenants in Purpose Built Student Accommodation from the protection afforded in the bill.

Milja Komulainen from Living Rent said: “It’s a real shame that the SNP are shying away from making this bill work for tenants right in the final hour. From increasing security of tenure to making sure tenants aren’t locked into leases, the Scottish Government led the way for tenants’ rights in UK on many fronts. They shouldn’t back down now.

“We must not forget that tenants who are evicted from their home are in an extremely vulnerable position. Many have ended up in the situation because of personal problems and may have nowhere else to go. It is absolutely crucial that any decision to evict a tenant is considered carefully and personal circumstances are taken into account.

“Today’s vote was a chance to make sure that the new regulations would not fail tenants in the most vulnerable situations - those who are struggling to make ends meet and are facing eviction. I urge the SNP to do the right thing for tenants and reconsider its position as the bill comes up for debate next.”

Patrick Harvie said: “The Scottish Government has overcome its reluctance to pass rent control laws, which the Scottish Greens and many housing campaigners have been calling for. But there is a real worry that this new regulation will be too open-ended and complex to actually be used by local councils. Rapid rent rises are pushing tenants into poverty especially in our big cities, and we must make sure the new rent controls don’t end up as mere window dressing.

“If we don’t make the new law tight enough, councils may be left waiting indefinitely before they can put rent controls in place. In a situation where they desperately need to stop unreasonable rent hikes in order to protect vulnerable tenants, this would be hugely counter-productive.

“The rent control measures will only deliver for Scotland’s tenants if councils are able to apply them when needed. I’m pleased that the Scottish Government has recognised the loopholes in the current bill and I look forward to working with the housing minister to making sure these loopholes are fixed.”

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