On the face of it, it seems counterintuitive that the government has announced, with great fanfare, a new policy that will make it easier for landlords to evict tenants while Michael Gove is still in the process of finalising his plan to make evictions more difficult. But it does, at least in theory, make sense.
At present a landlord can evict their tenants at will (albeit with notice) under the terms of the Housing Act 1988 – a so-called section 21 eviction. Gove intends to scrap this. England will therefore shift from a system where flexibility is the default, mediated by specific protections, to a much stickier one subject to certain exemptions.
Given that, it would have been grossly negligent of ministers not to review the specific grounds for eviction provided for in law, because soon these will be the only means by which tenants can be evicted at all. For the same reason, it makes sense for such changes to be enacted before the scrapping of section 21 evictions comes into law, even if it seems to send rather a perverse signal about the government’s priorities. To do otherwise risks a situation where even necessary and just evictions are impossible.
However, that a review of the regulations is sensible in principle does not mean that it is necessarily good politics.
By moving so decisively to restrict landlords’ discretion over evictions, the government is taking ownership of the issue politically and, in the longer term, bringing the question into the ambit of the state – something the Conservatives may come to regret. It is now for ministers to spell out every circumstance in which eviction is acceptable, and under what terms. History suggests it will be very difficult to design from the centre a system that works in all circumstances.
[See also: Good riddance to the buy-to-let landlord]
Take the proposals to make it easier to evict “persistently problematic tenants” with two weeks’ notice. Few will argue with the principle. But how are these tenants defined? Is there going to be a centrally promulgated standard of behaviour? Or will it be at the discretion of local councils? Looking at the examples of antisocial behaviour being bandied about, loud music foremost among them, it isn’t hard to see how this could end up, in the great tradition of British politics, worst for young people, who would trade the neglect of a remote landlord for the hostile vigilance of their newly empowered neighbours.
This is not just about openly malicious complaints, although they are a danger. People can and do in good faith have very different – and in some cases, quite unreasonable – beliefs about what they’re entitled to.
London’s nightlife is being strangled by noise complaints filed by people who genuinely believe that, having moved next to a pub or nightclub or to a neighbourhood such as Soho, they are nonetheless entitled to as quiet a night as anyone, no matter the broader consequences. Time and again, local authorities give in.
As it stands, there isn’t obviously anything in the government’s proposals that would prevent the same pattern repeating. What is the incentive for a council to reject vexatious noise complaints, if the complainer is persistent and much more likely to vote?
None of this means that tackling antisocial tenants isn’t a good thing. It is: they can cause great distress to their neighbours. But if the government is going to involve itself in the fine details of eviction, let alone make local politicians and officials the arbiters of the process, it cannot duck the thorny but essential question of what actually constitutes antisocial behaviour, and what is just trying to have a good time in a ruinously expensive age.