Catherine West – 2022 Speech on Private Rental Price Increases

The speech made by Catherine West, the Labour MP for Hornsey and Wood Green, in the House of Commons on 14 January 2022.

I called for this debate, and was successful thanks to the Speaker’s office, following the recent shocking treatment of a group of residents in my constituency by their landlord, which brought insecurities in the private rented sector into sharp focus. In November last year, I was contacted by several residents living in a block of flats in Hornsey and Wood Green. After their building was sold to a new landlord, they received either section 21 notices to evict them or section 13 notices saying that their rent was set to soar by an eye-watering 30% to 40%.

Those tenants included families who had lived there for decades and they were understandably devastated at the thought of losing their homes. Like me, they could not understand how an increase on that scale could ever be justified or how a landlord could kick out reliable long-standing tenants for no reason in the middle of a pandemic.

I am pleased to say that, following weeks of representations by my office to the new owners, the threat of adverse publicity in our local campaigning newspaper and the help of the charity Shelter and local Hornsey Labour councillors, I learned this week that the new owners had rescinded some of those notices and offered tenants new contracts on more favourable terms. Although that is welcome news for most residents, sadly, for some of them, the landlord’s change of heart two months after the notices were dispatched has come much too late.

This example highlights the huge power imbalance between private landlords and their tenants, which is currently upheld by existing housing legislation. That is why I am urging the Government to end section 21 notices, as they committed in their 2019 general election manifesto. I am asking the Minister to provide an answer today on when the renters’ reform Bill, promised in the Queen’s Speech, will be introduced.

In that block of flats in my constituency, seven households were issued with section 21 notices, which enable private landlords to repossess their properties from assured shorthold tenants without having to establish fault on the part of the tenant. Such measures are sometimes informally referred to as no-fault evictions. Many of those householders have lived in their flats for several years, in some cases decades, and are raising their families there.

One family who were issued with a section 21 notice have been renting their flat since 1991. They raised their daughter there and, now in their 60s, cannot afford a mortgage, because in that period, as the Minister will understand, the average price of a property in a place such as Hornsey and Wood Green has sky-rocketed. After the family challenged their landlord over the notice, they were told that their only other option was to accept a 40% rent increase.

Another resident whose family were issued with a section 21 notice after living in their flat for five years explained that his family had been left in an extremely difficult and precarious situation. To make matters worse, those notices were issued in mid-November, with section 21 notice recipients expected to find a new home and move over the Christmas period in the midst of a global pandemic. When challenged on that, the new managing agent for the block said that there was no good time to serve a section 21 notice. He is right, but there are some very bad times, and that was one of them.

Many other tenants in the blocks were issued with section 13 notices of rent rises of up to 40% with as little as four weeks’ notice. One of those residents explained to me that when she moved into her flat as a single parent, she enjoyed the sense of community in the block, which is home to a number of families. The landlord’s aggressive move to increase her rent by 30% to £2,000 per calendar month for a two-bedroom flat in Hornsey would have made it impossible for her to pay.

The only recourse available to those who receive section 13 notices is to refer them to a tribunal. However, this process can be lengthy, complex, time-consuming and a waste of public funds, particularly for those struggling to access expert advice. Moreover, there is nothing to stop landlords subsequently issuing a section 21 notice if the tribunal decision does not go in their favour. The Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, who has worked with tenants and landlords to develop a new and fairer tenancy model—the London model—has called on the Government to reform court processes to make it easier for renters to challenge rent increases and eviction notices. He wholeheartedly supports this Adjournment debate.

Particularly given the Tory household budget crisis, it is an injustice that any landlord should be able to behave in this way. When I contacted Shelter for advice, I was told there is nothing to prevent private owners deciding to take possession on a large scale like this, even during a global pandemic and on the eve of Christmas.

Living with that level of uncertainty can be detrimental to the wellbeing of our community. Shelter’s survey of private renters in 2021 found that 39% said their housing problems or worries left them feeling stressed and anxious, and many parents have reported to Shelter that the insecurity of renting makes it harder for their children to settle. Living in homes on short, fixed-term contracts with the threat of eviction or a looming unaffordable rent hike makes planning for the future extremely difficult. Frequent moves are not only expensive but disruptive to employment and children’s education.

Living in constant fear of eviction also makes renters less likely to report disrepair problems, which is an issue I see all too frequently in my constituency, where 17,000 households are privately renting. Shockingly, a quarter of privately rented homes do not meet the decent homes standard, with 14% having a category 1 hazard that poses a very significant safety concern.

Although there are some actions the local authority can take to ensure landlords address the most serious disrepair, Citizens Advice found that private renters who make a formal complaint to their local authority have a 46% chance of being served with an eviction notice within six months, which is a severe deterrent to reporting disrepair to the local authority.

Eleven million people, including 1 million children, are now living in rented accommodation. In the past this was just a short-term option before one purchased a home or before one was able to get on a housing list. Now, with 11 million people living in privately rented accommodation in the UK, this has become an urgent issue. The number is expected to grow in the coming years, with 40% of London’s households expected to be living in the private rented sector by 2025. This is no way for the city’s inhabitants to live.

The last piece of comprehensive legislation affecting the private rented sector was introduced in 1988, when the number was far lower. With a growing number of people affected across the country, the Government need to act urgently. First, when will the renters’ reform Bill be brought to the House? Secondly, when will the Government live up to their promise to build more genuinely affordable homes? By that I mean homes with rent at the level of council rents so that people can afford to save while renting and can get on to the housing ladder if they wish to do so later.

Everyone has the right to a safe and secure home. It is shameful that, three years after promising to end no-fault evictions, renters such as my constituents in Hornsey and Wood Green are still living with the fear of being made homeless by their landlord due to this Government’s failure to act. I urge the Minister to address these concerns, which are shared by so many in my constituency, across London and across the UK—11 million people are affected in the UK.