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A Bolt From the Blue: What Scrapping Section 21 Would Mean for Renters

It’s rare for a law to be so notorious that it’s known by its section number, particularly when it’s a law that’s been in place for more than 30 years.  But section 21 has earned that right.

Introduced by the Thatcher government, section 21 of the Housing Act 1988 brought about the deregulation of the private rented sector. A short history of housing legislation is available here, but the important point is that the introduction of short-term tenancies with the possibility of ‘no fault evictions’ – meaning that renters can be evicted with two months’ notice with no reason required from the landlord – turned private sector housing into the ultimate asset. The section 21 mechanism allows rents to rise extremely quickly and, by ensuring that tenants are under perpetual threat of eviction, puts the power in the hands of landlords. Legal rights are all-but unenforceable and taking economic or political action against a landlord is a fool’s errand.

The rising rents, of course, contribute to the processes of social cleansing and gentrification, while, the insecurity and poor conditions that it causes are currently leading to mental ill-health for huge numbers of private renters.  

An amazing trajectory.

The government’s announcement that it will consult on the abolition of the law was a bolt from the blue. Despite section 21 being the single biggest recorded cause of homelessness, campaigning organisations like Crisis, Centrepoint and Shelter hadn’t come anywhere close to calling for its repeal in England. The Labour party is a very recent convert: the shadow housing minister made a similar announcement a few weeks ago, but there was nothing serious about the private rented sector in its high-profile policy document Housing For The Many (April 2018).

The government has followed an amazing trajectory. Just five years ago a report by a UN special rapporteur, which called for better security in the private sector, was dismissed by the Conservative housing minister as a “misleading Marxist diatribe”. Two years later Theresa May and Sajid Javid conceded that the housing market was “broken” in the title of their own white paper. Now, they’re in favour of dismantling Thatcher’s deregulation of the private sector.

Interestingly, this announcement comes just after the government has renewed its commitment to the insidiously named “right to rent” system. Though recently defeated in the High Court, the Home Office intends to continue with a policy that legally requires landlords to check the immigration status of prospective tenants. While proposing to end section 21 and thereby extend housing rights for one section of the population, this government continues to violently seize them from migrants.

Beyond the immediate and obvious benefits to private tenants that security of tenure would bring, the abolition of section 21 is important because it lays the groundwork for further, better developments, allowing lawyers to pursue tenants’ rights in court without the fear of the reprisal of homelessness. Beyond the law, removing the lurking threat of eviction will probably come as a relief to the many groups who are trying to organise around housing struggles.  

Thatcher’s legacy.

An international comparison provides some insight into how dire the housing situation in England has become. The German economy’s long term reliance on industrial exports dictates that workers’ wages, and by extension the rent for their homes, be kept low. Recent Berlin protests against rising rents notwithstanding, the German state has repeatedly intervened to keep rents in check. Many Germans are content to rent for their entire lives, safe in the knowledge of their security of tenure and German workers’ primary class antagonism is with industrial bosses, not landlords.

Since Thatcher, by contrast, the UK’s economy has been based on an unholy alliance between finance capital and landlords. Financiers are intensely relaxed with high rents and many stand to profit from a financialised housing market. England also has far more homeowners than Germany, whose economic and political interests rest on keeping house prices high. With few industrial capitalists to hold them in check, rents have spiralled out of control. Section 21 forms an important part of that deregulated housing framework.

The recent announcement has implications for wider causes, too. Stable housing is almost a prerequisite for serious political organising. During the 1889 dock strike in London, for example, tenants resisted paying rent and hung a banner that said “As we are on strike landlords need not call”. That would be an impossible tactic under current circumstances. Through outrageously high rents, coupled with the availability of easy evictions, Thatcher’s policies continue to erode the power of trade unions and undermine the right to strike by another means. Stable housing would help to rebalance power relations in favour of workers.

Politics over policy?

Some housing organisers are rightly cautious about the announcement. It has been pointed out that the right to stay longer in poor quality expensive housing is a paltry thing. The focus should be on building good council housing and the abolition of section 21 does nothing to help those languishing at the very bottom end of the private rented sector (councils tend to place homeless applicants in appalling quality long-term ‘temporary’ private accommodation).

But the number of private renters is huge and growing. It has now overtaken the number of social renters and is catching up with mortgaged home owners. While repealing section 21 is not enough, it would have a meaningful benefit for 4.5m households while good council housing is being built.

And perhaps the politics are more important than the policy. Security of tenure in the private sector has gone from being a “Marxist diatribe” to a Tory commitment and has brought the tension between landlords and tenants (and the classes they represent) to the foreground. For the last 20-30 years private landlords’ image has been mediated through the various daytime TV programmes glamorising buy-to-let and property investment, coming to be seen as buccaneers on the high seas of the housing market. The wrath that met Sky News presenter Jayne Secker when she revealed herself to be a private landlord in a bizarre attack on an interviewee perhaps shows that our attitude towards the landlord class is becoming healthier.

Published 18th April 2019

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