BLOG: Housing high on the agenda as the Senedd returns
In its first week since the summer recess, the Welsh Parliament has seen the private rented sector (PRS) and housing take centre stage – at least for those who follow its proceedings closely.
On Tuesday, the Minister for Housing and Local Government, Julie James MS, gave a statement where she announced the Welsh Government were keeping the extended six month notice periods in place for evictions until the end of March next year. This brings Wales in-line with the rest of the UK nations. However, the NRLA argued that this was unnecessary as the Welsh Government adopted our recommendations for a low-cost, repayable loan for tenants to cover arrears, thus eliminating the likelihood of evictions. On the other hand, the Minister did heed our call to return notice periods citing anti-social behaviour and domestic violence to pre-pandemic levels. She also echoed our call for the UK Government to ensure that LHA stays at the 30% mark and considers lifting it to 50%.
Sadly, the Minister did ignore evidence from NRLA-commissioned surveys showing the vast majority of tenants were paying their rent as normal through the pandemic. In response to the Minister’s statement, the Welsh Conservative Shadow Housing Minister wanted assurances on how the Tenancy Saver Loan would work for landlords if a tenant refused to take sign up to it to pay off their arrears, while the Plaid Cymru housing spokesperson said a landlord bailout was “unfair”.
The day before, the Minister went before the Finance Committee about the Renting Homes (Amendment) Bill which will significantly alter the possessions regime in Wales. If passed, it will amend a 2016 Act. This Act will then be commenced in Autumn 2021 to give landlords and agents time to prepare.
It was disappointing to see the Minister could not recognise that the Bill will increase costs for landlords. The Bill is designed to encourage landlords to evict tenants in arrears or those exhibiting anti-social behaviour via grounds-based notices to quit. These will have shorter notice periods than the six months for “no-fault” ones. However, landlords use S21 (which will become S173 when the Act is commenced) because the court system is so inefficient that it fails to bring justice swiftly, forcing landlords to go for the quicker S21 as there are no significant court waits. Therefore, encouraging landlords to go to court will increase costs for them. So, it was odd to hear the Minister say she believes the Bill will lead to fewer court cases. It was also good to see NRLA concerns raised by Committee members including the Leader of the Brexit Party group, Mark Reckless MS.
She was followed by Rebecca Evans MS, the Finance Minister, to discuss the changes to Land Transaction Tax (LTT), made to stimulate the housing market after the initial economic slump caused by the pandemic. The threshold at which homebuyers pay LTT, the Welsh equivalent of stamp duty, was lifted to £250,000 (£500,000 in England and Northern Ireland) but, unlike the Chancellor, Ms Evans exempted second home and Buy-to-Let purchasers, who still had to pay the premium as a second property buyer.
She said this is because it was targeted at those who would live in the property they buy such as first-time homeowners. This is a shame because, if the economic consequences of Covid-19 will be similar to that of the financial crisis, we should expect an increased reliance on the PRS, in which case landlords should be empowered to, not discouraged from, providing a home.
On Wednesday, Ms James was in front of the Senedd again to answer questions on her portfolio responsibilities. She took questions on second homes and holiday accommodation, fuel poverty schemes, and houses of multiple occupation. On this final topic, she was asked by Mick Antoniw MS (Labour, Pontypridd) about the prospect of tightening restrictions on HMOs. Hopefully, this will not prevent either from supporting NRLA calls to streamline HMO licensing without compromising on standards.
Then yesterday, the NRLA attended a roundtable to discuss a dog-friendly “paw-licy” for Wales, organised by Jack Sargeant MS. Mr Sargeant is looking to find a way by which those entering and being lifted out of homelessness can keep their pet throughout the process, so wants to discover the issues that some stakeholders have so we can, together, find a way through so that those going through a very difficult time in their life can keep their beloved companion.
The NRLA highlighted some of the justified anxieties private landlords have with letting to tenants with pets, but made sure to explain ways in which they can be ameliorated. These include taking a larger security deposit and letting through a leasing scheme where a local authority or social landlord are responsible for rectifying any property damage for the duration of the lease.
So as the Senedd comes back for its final stretch before the election next May and no sign of coronavirus disappearing from our lives, it is good to see housing remains high on the agenda of Welsh politicians. All we need now is for them to realise that the issues that have arisen in the PRS cannot be ignored, and that means addressing the problems facing landlords – not just those facing tenants. Once policymakers accept that landlords are just as worthy of assistance as anyone else and there are solutions that do not pit them and tenants against each other, we can finally get around to building a fair and harmonious PRS.