The fifth anniversary of Government promise to reform private renting

Today, 15 April 2024, marks five years since Theresa May’s government first promised to abolish section 21 ‘no-fault’ evictions, proposing the “biggest change to the private rental sector for a generation”.

This was a huge milestone in the campaign for renters' rights and a testament to the hard work of the End Unfair Evictions campaign – a precursor to the Renters’ Reform Coalition. In 2020, the RRC was formed on the basis that this promise wouldn’t happen on its own, and that the government would need to be held to account for it to become a reality. Five years and four Prime Ministers later, so it has proved.

It’s the fifth anniversary since renters were first promised meaningful change – we hope it’s the last time this date passes without huge improvements to renters' rights in England. To mark the day this blog is reflecting on some key points of the campaign up to now.

Part 1: Creation of the RRC

Just a month after announcing plans to reform private renting, Theresa May resigned, and shortly after Boris Johnson was leading the Conservatives into the 2019 General Election.

Fortunately, the promise to abolish no-fault evictions made it into the Conservative manifesto. After winning the election, Johnson’s Government re-confirmed this commitment in his Queen’s Speech (setting out the government’s planned legislative agenda) that December, announcing a Renters’ Reform Bill to “deliver a fairer and more effective rental market”.

The following month saw the first Covid-19 case in the UK and Government plans for long term reform were put on ice. At the same time, emergency measures were introduced to protect tenants from eviction and notice periods were increased to six months. This was an important and necessary intervention, pushed for by tireless campaign groups such as our host organisation Generation Rent, which prevented thousands of people from becoming homeless in the middle of a public health crisis. It also demonstrated that a private renting system based on the needs of those living in it was possible – and that government action could make a difference.

The measures, though, were temporary – and the future of long-term reform remained an open question. On December 19th, 2020, the five organisations involved in the End Unfair Evictions campaign joined with 15 other organisations to form the Renters’ Reform Coalition, with a mission to deliver a fairer housing system for England’s 12 million renters and to hold the government to its promise to do this.

The Coalition was formed on the basis that, though our individual members would have different priorities and emphases, we would be stronger and better able to hold the Government to their promise if we were united.

         Part 2: Keeping reform on the agenda

By Autumn 2021, all the pandemic protections for renters had been removed. We pushed against this, coordinating a meet-up for renters at Parliament where we were joined by 24 MPs and a further 1,700 emails were sent to MPs by our supporters. United in demanding the Government give private tenants the security they were promised (and temporarily had). 

Approaching the two-year anniversary of the 2019 commitment, the Government was still yet to set out its proposals for reform. Taking matters into our own hands, by March 2022 our policy blueprint was ready: Safe, secure and affordable homes for all: A renters’ blueprint for reform", setting the RRC's proposed solutions for change. Every page was shaped by the experiences of the renters our member organisations work with in advice centres, communities and unions. We launched the report in Parliament and politicians from all political parties came along to show their support.

Launch of RRC policy blueprint in Parliament - photo of briefings on left and members with placards on right

Despite renters’ reform being confirmed in Johnson’s 2019 and 2020 Queen’s Speeches, there was very little sign of movement from the Government. We became increasingly concerned they were going to allow this issue to fall off their agenda so wrote a joint letter. We took the letter straight to Downing Street, calling on Boris Johnson to recommit to reform and bring forward the Bill. One week later, we celebrated the Renters Reform Bill being announced (again) in the Queen’s Speech of May 2022. Of course, we were in a sense celebrating standing still – but so imperilled was the agenda at one stage, keeping it alive was a victory.

RRC team handing letter into no.10 Downing Street

There would be more success the following month, as on the 16th of June 2022 the Government finally published the Renters’ Reform white paper, titled ‘A fairer private rented sector’. The document outlined the Government’s plans for reform, providing insight into the scope and shape their plans would take. A Bill was promised for that Autumn.

Many of the proposals in the white paper were welcomed by the RRC and our members as a good starting point on the journey towards the kind of system that would offer renters genuine security.

We were standing ready to scrutinise the legislation and, hopefully, improve it, when events took over. Just three weeks after the white paper was published, Michael Gove, the Housing Secretary responsible for the reforms, was sacked by Johnson on his way out the door. Greg Clark became the new Housing Secretary, but he was effectively a caretaker while the Conservative leadership election took place, and was never likely to be progressing a meaty reform agenda. No one will forget that it was Liz Truss that emerged victorious.

By chance, we held a parliamentary reception the following day. It was an opportunity for politicians to hear directly from private renters. We launched some polling we commissioned, which confirmed that reform should stay on the new Prime Minister’s agenda not only was it a manifesto commitment, but it also has undeniable public support. We found a huge public majority of 79% – and 80% of those who voted Conservative in the 2019 election – wanted to see more support for private renters. Check out the full report here.

Alas, public backing and a manifesto commitment were not enough to keep reform safe. Come October 2022, a leak revealed the Government could be planning to scrap their promise to bring the Renters Reform Bill to Parliament. We coordinated an emergency demonstration outside Parliament less than 24 hours later, and, despite the short notice, we were joined by over 40 supporters of the coalition and MPs from across the political spectrum.

Emergency demonstration outside Parliament after leak Truss was scrapping the Bill

Whilst we welcomed confirmation from Liz Truss and Simon Clarke (the newly appointed Housing Secretary) that the Government was going to go ahead with reform ‘when parliamentary time allows’, (a phrase we were going to hear again and again over the coming months) the deadlines the government had set for itself continued to slip. Surely not helped by the ongoing political turmoil, with Truss resigning later that same month.

In this period of politics, when an update was out of date before we had even finished writing it, the coalition soon found itself convincing the next new Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak, to keep reform on the agenda. Under Sunak, Michael Gove was re-appointed Housing Secretary, and Felicity Buchan the Minister responsible for the Bill. We put our case for reform directly to Buchan in a roundtable in early 2023. However, despite a new cabinet and Prime Minister, the phrase ‘when parliamentary time allows’ remained. Not to be perturbed, we got to work on our biggest action to date: the Renters’ Reform Coalition Day of Action.

After months of planning, the Day of Action took place on the 21st of March 2023. More than 300 private renters – from Newcastle to Newquay – travelled to Parliament to demand reform. Our coalition members put on events and ran advice sessions, and hundreds of people met their MPs to discuss why reform was important to them. A further 56,715 took part online, signing our petition that we took to Downing Street. Our demands were for Sunak to bring forward the Bill and make sure improvements were made to close loopholes we had identified in the White Paper.

The last event of the day then saw (yet another) newly appointed housing minister, Rachel Maclean, answer questions from attendees. It was refreshing to see Maclean challenge false narratives claiming reform would drive landlords to leave the sector. Maclean also ditched the ‘when time allows’ narrative and recommitted to reform in the coming Autumn (yes, we have deja vu too!).

Photos from RRC Day of Action, campaigners handing petition into no.10 on left, attendees at last event at a Q&A with Rachel Maclean

Part 3: We have a Bill!

On the 17th of May 2023, four years on from when reform was first promised, the Government finally published the Renters (Reform) Bill, giving it its First Reading in the House of Commons. A bill is a piece of legislation before it becomes law. To become an act of law, it must be debated and voted on in the House of Commons and the House of Lords, likely being amended along the way. If it is voted through, it will then receive Royal Assent and become an act of law. Whilst we were pleased to finally have legislation drafted, it became clear on closer analysis that loopholes (including some we had first spotted in the White Paper) had made their way into the Bill, meaning tenants would still be at risk of unfair evictions under the proposed changes. Building on our previous policy work, the coalition agreed on a set of priorities for strengthening the Bill:

  1. A four, rather than two, month notice period if a household is being evicted under the Bill’s new eviction grounds (if the landlord is selling or moving in);
  2. A protected period for renters of two years before a landlord can use one of the new eviction grounds;  
  3. Measures to safeguard against abuse of the new grounds;
  4. A cap on in-tenancy rent increases at the lowest of either inflation or wage growth, to avoid unaffordable rent increases being used as a backdoor eviction method;
  5. Maximum discretion for judges to identify if there are good reasons why an eviction should not take place, through discretionary grounds and suspended possession orders.

In anticipation of the Bill continuing on its journey through Parliament, we held a drop-in session for MPs and Peers to come and discuss the reforms and be briefed on our main concerns.

RRC members at briefing session in Parliament anticipating second reading

On the 23rd of October 2023, the Bill eventually had its second reading, the next necessary step in its journey to become law and the first opportunity for MPs to debate the main principles of the Bill and vote on the legislation. This length of delay between stages – five months after first reading – was certainly not normal. To keep the pressure up in the meantime, we wrote to the PM urging him to bring the Bill forward. We also commissioned more polling to gauge public opinion on our proposed amendments to strengthen the legislation, revealing – once again – strong public support for better protections for private renters. We gathered outside Parliament to make sure renters were part of the narrative on the day. The bill passed its second reading without a division, meaning unanimous support.

Demonstration outside Parliament on day of second reading

The Bill was then carried over into the next parliamentary session in the King’s Speech and went through committee stage from the 14th to the 28th of November. Committee stage is where a select group of MPs carry out a detailed examination of the Bill. In the first half of committee, MPs are presented with evidence from a series of experts and interest groups from across the sector. The Chair of the Renters’ Reform Coalition, alongside 12 coalition members, was among those invited to give evidence, showing the strength of those advocating for renters (see our highlights of those giving evidence here and here). In the second half of committee stage, the same group of MPs carry out a detailed analysis of the Bill and table amendments to try to change the legislation. We followed all of this closely, clipping key moments which can be seen here, here and here.

Disappointingly, Government engagement with our concerns was limited, which was definitely not helped by the fact that Rachel Maclean was removed from the brief the week prior to committee so the new Minister leading on this, Jacob Young, only had a week to prepare (in case you weren’t counting, this made him the third Minister responsible for the Bill in 2023 alone).

Part 4: Five years on, where are we at?

Since then, things haven’t gone much more smoothly. We were promised the next stages of the Bill (report stage, where all MPs have the opportunity to consider further amendments to the Bill, and third reading, where they go on to debate them) early in the New Year. Unfortunately, a rebel group of pro-landlord Conservative MPs had other ideas.

The window between committee and report stage gives MPs the chance to submit their own amendments, and other MPs can then sign onto any changes they support in the run up to report stage. Rather than seeing the RRB as a tool for rebalancing a deeply unfair system, this group of Conservative backbenchers submitted and signed onto amendments that would strengthen landlord’s privileges at the expense of renters. These amendments included a ‘tenant trap’, to locking renters into the first six months of a tenancy and an assessment of the county courts before a section 21 ban could be enacted, delaying implementation indefinitely. In response, we helped coordinate a letter to Housing Secretary Micheal Gove, urging him to "show the necessary political courage to face down vested interests". The next day, in an interview with the BBC, Michael Gove promised to outlaw section 21 before the general election.

Concerns remained about efforts to water down the Bill, so we ran our own analysis of the MPs that were backing the proposed changes. We found around 30% of those supporting the pro-landlord amendments were themselves landlords – significantly more than the percentage of MPs that are landlords (17%).

To keep pushing the case for pro-tenant reform, we held two events later that February. The first was a briefing for members of the House of Lords which saw Peers (as they are called) from across the political spectrum attend and ask questions. The second, a Parliamentary Reception where over 100 attendees heard from renters sharing their experiences. The room was full of parliamentarians, stakeholders and coalition members, all rallying behind the need for change.

RRC events, Briefing in House of Lords on left and Parliamentary Reception on right

Last month it was confirmed that the Government had given in to the landlord lobby, and that they are planning to delay the abolition of Section 21 indefinitely, while also committing to look at “reducing burdens on landlords” to meet licensing standards, and locking tenants into – potentially unsafe and unsuitable – housing for the first six months of a new tenancy. A very disappointing day for us campaigners who have been trying to prevent this. Alongside these amendments, the Government also confirmed that that Renters (Reform) Bill would return to Parliament after Easter recess – which is today! The weeks ahead will be crucial.

In the days and months to come, we will be putting all of our efforts behind strengthening the Bill and pushing back against these and further concessions. We’ll be making the case for legislation that delivers meaningful change for England’s renters, both in the run-up to the Bill’s report stage and third reading, and then when it enters the House of Lords. Sadly, what we have in front of us now does not do that – but it is not too late.

We desperately hope that this is the last anniversary of the government’s promise to deliver meaningful change. But we also know that this Bill alone is completely inadequate. It needs considerable strengthening if it is going to improve renters' security of tenure as it was intended to. Security of tenure is also just the beginning of what needs fixing for private renters, and five years on we are ready to push for change in other areas affecting renters.

Whilst this has been a rollercoaster of a journey, it is also important not to lose sight of the bigger picture. That this government has brought forward legislation aimed at regulating the private sector, with the stated goal of improving the rights of tenants, is no mean feat – and it is in no small part down to the overwhelming public support for reform and tireless campaigning from the renters’ movement. There are those who would happily have let reform fall off the agenda, so the fact renting remains a key political issue heading into the next election, is to the hard work and resilience of all those that have been part of the struggle for renters’ rights. Thank you to everyone who has supported this movement. We will keep pushing for renters to stay on the political agenda, in the run-up to the general election and beyond. Together, we will make sure renters’ voices are heard loud and clear.

RRC Campaign Officer, Rosie Dutch

RRC members and supporters outside Parliament with placards and banners