Examination of Witness

Renters (Reform) Bill – in a Public Bill Committee am 2:40 pm ar 14 Tachwedd 2023.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Kate Henderson gave evidence.

Photo of Yvonne Fovargue Yvonne Fovargue Llafur, Makerfield 2:53, 14 Tachwedd 2023

Q We will now hear oral evidence from Kate Henderson, chief executive of the National Housing Federation. We have until 3.15 pm for this panel. Please you introduce yourself for the record?

Kate Henderson:

Good afternoon. I am Kate Henderson, chief executive of the National Housing Federation. We represent housing associations in England, which are not-for-profit providers of 2.7 million homes to around 6 million people.

I would like to say a little about housing associations, just for 30 seconds. While, on the face of it, this Bill does not apply to social housing, and a lot of the homes that we provide would not be seen in the private rented sector, it is important to acknowledge that the Bill has implications, particularly for supported housing, where we might currently be using assured shorthold tenancies.

That type of accommodation—we provide three quarters of all supported accommodation in this country—covers things such as emergency accommodation for people fleeing domestic abuse, for veterans experiencing homelessness, for care-experienced young people, for adults with both physical and learning disabilities, and also step-down accommodation from mental health facilities.

Again, it is about just being really mindful that, while the vast majority of the tenancies in the housing association sector are assured, there are implications for that important supported housing provision, and just making sure that there are no unintended consequences from this Bill coming forward.

Photo of Matthew Pennycook Matthew Pennycook Shadow Minister (Levelling Up, Housing, Communities and Local Government)

Q Thank you, Kate, for coming to give evidence. You are absolutely right: the Bill does have implications for social housing providers in a number of areas—tenancy reform and others. Could you speak to whether you think that the Bill strikes the right balance when it comes to those changes, first in general terms and then, specifically, on grounds for possession? The NHF has made the case for changes in a number of areas—for example, ground 1B to include transfer to another tenant as well as sale. Could you give us a sense as to why you think that those changes are required?

Kate Henderson:

The National Housing Federation supports the Government’s aims of protecting the rights of tenants, and we agree with the abolition of section 21. That should extend across the board. It is important to strike the right balance between landlords and tenants in all sectors, including tenants of housing associations, so it is really important that the Bill does not have any unintended consequences for the ability of housing associations to operate effectively and to provide decent, secure and affordable homes for their tenants, particularly in that area of support and need.

We have four areas in which we would like to seek further clarification. The first is around changes to rent increases. The second is around ground 1B for rent to buy specifically. The third is around superior landlord grounds—so 2ZA and 2ZB—and the fourth is around ground 6 for redevelopments.

We would like to see all types of social housing exempt from the proposed approach to rent increases, whether included within the rent standard or not. That is a limited change to the Bill but it would help to deliver vital forms of housing to meet specific sub-market needs. We would like to see ground 1B be extended to apply when a property is not being sold but a tenancy is being offered to another tenant wishing to take part in a rent-to-buy scheme. We would like clarification around ground 2ZA so that that can be used on a tenancy at will. Lastly, we would like housing associations to be given access to ground 6. There could be a possibility of making that a prior-notice ground as a safeguard for tenants. I have just listed several grounds for quite specific contexts, so I would be happy to give examples of why we would find changes in those areas useful.

On the specific ground that Matthew has just raised, the current wording of the rent-to-buy ground 1B does not allow it to be used when a property is not being sold but when a new tenant is moving in instead. For example, you have somebody who is in a rent-to-buy property, has been there for five years and has decided that they do not want to buy it or they cannot buy it; we would like the ground available so that that property could be given to another tenant who would like to use the property as it was intended and designed to be used—as a rent to buy. Just to highlight, that is a Government product supported by the affordable homes programme and regulated by the Regulator of Social Housing, so we would like it to be able to operate as intended. Again, just that access to that ground would ensure that rent to buy works as intended.

Photo of Matthew Pennycook Matthew Pennycook Shadow Minister (Levelling Up, Housing, Communities and Local Government)

Q I think that you implied there that you might send us further evidence, but could you touch briefly on the rent increases point that you made earlier? I think that it was the first of your areas for clarification.

Kate Henderson:

Sure. At the moment, the social housing sector is regulated by the Regulator of Social Housing, and the vast majority of our rents are set by Government and set annually. The Bill makes changes that would restrict rent increases to once in 12 months and require landlords to give two months’ notice of rent changes.

As I mentioned in my introduction, our members manage 2.7 million homes. Requiring two months’ notice of a rent increase, and requiring each tenant’s rent to be changed on the anniversary of their tenancy, would place a huge administrative burden, whether it is on a large-volume landlord or even on a smaller landlord with fewer staff.

This would take away from a provider’s ability to deliver those core services. The Bill acknowledges that by including an exemption for social housing in the rent standard—social housing is exempt from those changes. However, some types of social housing, such as intermediate rents, specialist supported housing and some forms of low-cost home ownership, are not included and do not appear to be exempt from the changes. Not exempting some types of social housing would cause complications and administrative burdens. It might mean that neighbours had their rents increased at different times, and it would really affect delivery.

Housing associations are responsible landlords, and we are regulated by the Regulator of Social Housing, so any concerns about unscrupulous rent increases do not apply to us. We are asking that all types of social housing be exempted from the proposed approach to rent increases, whether or not they are included in the rent standard.

Photo of Jacob Young Jacob Young Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities)

Q We spoke to the housing ombudsman earlier. I am interested in your reflections on the social housing ombudsman, the creation of the new private rented sector ombudsman and what lessons can be learned.

Kate Henderson:

It is absolutely right that residents in the private rented sector have access to an ombudsman. It is really important that that access is clear and easy to navigate and that there are routes to address where things have gone wrong in the private rented sector.

From a housing association perspective, we want to make sure that there is clarity about the remit of a new ombudsman, because we already have an ombudsman service. However, some housing associations also provide market rent homes. If you were a resident in a market rent home, would you go to the current housing ombudsman or to the new PRS ombudsman? We need real clarity on remits so that there is not confusion either for the landlord or, most importantly, for the tenant.

Photo of Karen Buck Karen Buck Llafur, Westminster North

Q Apart from probationary tenancies, most social housing tenants have secure tenancies. You will be aware of the Bill’s amendments to ground 14 on antisocial behaviour. Given the experience of dealing with antisocial behaviour with secure tenancies, can any lessons be learned from the work that you do in the social sector?

Kate Henderson:

Housing associations take reports of antisocial behaviour very seriously, and we will always investigate them thoroughly. Many of our members have in-house teams dedicated to managing and resolving ASB that often work extensively with the police and local authorities. For any housing association, although eviction is sometimes necessary, it will always be a last resort. There are many actions that housing associations will take to resolve an ASB case prior to its reaching the point at which a tenant might face an eviction.

The Bill’s changes to ground 14 propose a widening of the definition of ASB in the ground from any behaviour “likely to cause” to any behaviour “capable of causing” nuisance or annoyance. The word “capable” is really open to interpretation. For us, it is all about clarity: what, exactly, constitutes a legal ground for eviction under the new definition, and how will it work in practice? Eviction is, of course, a last resort. It is incredibly distressing to deal with such cases, particularly if they are having an impact on multiple residents. It is really important that we do everything we can to resolve a case before it gets to an eviction.

Photo of Lloyd Russell-Moyle Lloyd Russell-Moyle Labour/Co-operative, Brighton, Kemptown

Q Ground 14A relates to the situation in which a social landlord wishes to evict the perpetrator of domestic abuse, where the partner has fled. Very often, it requires the partner, not the perpetrator, to leave. Is the wording sufficient, or should there be some wording to allow possession even if the partner has not fled, and reallocate it to the partner? Very often the tenancy is in the name of the perpetrator.

Kate Henderson:

This is an area on which I would like to see further evidence. I am a member of the Domestic Abuse Commissioner’s strategic reference group on perpetrators. In that scenario, where the victim does not want to leave the property, how can we ensure that the tenancy is in their name but the perpetrator is removed? I would like to seek the expertise of those who are working at the forefront of domestic abuse before giving you a direct answer on the strength of that ground, but I would be happy to follow that up with the Committee.

Photo of Lloyd Russell-Moyle Lloyd Russell-Moyle Labour/Co-operative, Brighton, Kemptown

Q That would be much appreciated, so that we can get the right balance.

On ground 6, you said that you would quite like the ability for redevelopment. We know that there have been some very controversial repossessions over a state redevelopment that local authorities and housing associations have been part of. Tenants have often liked the security of knowing that they cannot just be given a few months’ notice, that they have to go through a process, and that they have the ability in the end to say, “No, this is my home.” Would giving that ability strike a balance that is not in favour of the tenant?

Kate Henderson:

The context in which we are asking for access to ground 6 is when regeneration is already taking place. It is a scenario where you have a development where people have been moved out while works are taking place. That might be for building safety reasons, for energy efficiency reasons or for decency reasons. At the moment, if that accommodation is being rebuilt and the tenant has been moved into temporary decant accommodation, we would always try to do that by consent with the residents.

In that decant accommodation, we typically use assured shorthold tenancies. Obviously that will go with the abolition of section 21, which we support. This is the place for the grounds to be extended to where residents are in the decant accommodation. Those residents would be moving back into the newly built accommodation that would have been allocated to them, but we need to make sure we can have that constant flow between use of the decant accommodation and getting people back into their permanent settled accommodation.

Photo of Lloyd Russell-Moyle Lloyd Russell-Moyle Labour/Co-operative, Brighton, Kemptown

So that is where an assured tenancy is being offered.

Kate Henderson:

Sometimes it is done on licence. If the building that is being redeveloped is not being fully demolished, and people are going back in, you would move into the decant accommodation on licence. But in a situation with major regeneration—we hope to see more of that; it is great that the affordable homes programme has now opened up to that—typically with the decant accommodation the tenant would have an assured shorthold tenancy. That will not now be an option, so we want a situation where there are grounds for the decant accommodation for those people. It would be a very rare set of circumstances where somebody wanted to stay in the decant accommodation and not move back, but it has happened. We want to make sure that we are able to continue with the pace of regeneration. This could be a prior notice ground to give a safeguard to the tenants. Again, it is just about having access so we can make sure that regeneration can happen in a timely way.

Photo of Mike Amesbury Mike Amesbury Shadow Minister (Levelling Up, Housing, Communities and Local Government)

Q Is there anything else that should be in the Bill, or anything that concerns you about the Bill?

Kate Henderson:

This is very technical, but one of the areas—in addition to rent increases; thank you for the opportunity to discuss those—relates to grounds 2ZA and 2ZB, which are two mandatory grounds for possession where a superior lease ends. This will generally be for situations in which a section 21 would previously have been used.

Let me give an example of why this is an issue. It tends to be an issue in supported housing, where you have a superior landlord who has let on a short-term lease to a housing association for, say, five years. That housing association is the intermediate landlord, and it would typically provide supported housing and sometimes very high-level support to vulnerable residents, who would be the occupational tenant.

In some situations, either the superior or the intermediate landlord will allow the lease to lapse, and then you would go into a scenario of tenancy at will; and in that situation, we do not want a situation where the superior landlord is responsible for the occupational tenant, given the high levels of support needs. It is unclear whether these grounds would then be available for use if there is a tenancy at will. Again, in most situations you would have given notice—the intermediate landlord would have given vacant possession to the superior landlord—but in the case where that has lapsed, we need to ensure that these grounds can work. The second issue is around maintaining possession of the property until proceedings have concluded.

It is a fairly technical area, but it matters to those who are providing supported housing and using leases. I would be happy to provide a further note to the Committee when I submit our written evidence. I appreciate that this is a rather technical matter, but it is important in terms of high-level support.

Photo of Yvonne Fovargue Yvonne Fovargue Llafur, Makerfield

If there are no further questions from members, let me thank the witness for her evidence and let us move on to the next panel.