The Tories have not exactly hidden their contempt for the British public over the past 12 years, but they’re not even trying to maintain the facade any more. In Liz Truss’s latest gambit to hand Keir Starmer the keys to Downing Street, the government may be about to break its promise of banning no-fault evictions. It risks creating a homelessness catastrophe this winter.
In 2019, then prime minister Theresa May announced the renters’ reform bill. Included in the bill was a pledge to abolish section 21 of the Housing Act 1988 – a wonderfully cruel bit of legislation passed by Margaret Thatcher that allows landlords to evict private renters on short notice for no good reason.
The government said the bill would “provide greater certainty for tenants and make the housing market fit for the 21st century”. Three years later, the housing market feels more like the 19th century. Many tenants are crammed into cramped flatshares in dilapidated dwellings while landlords count their profits. No-fault evictions have soared – according to the government’s own figures, 19,790 households in England were at risk of losing their homes in the last financial year due to this type of eviction, an increase of 121% on the previous year. There was also a 53% increase in private tenants seeking homelessness assistance.
The word “crisis” is bandied around far too readily. But that feels like an accurate description of the state of the nation’s housing. The classic comedy character Edmund Blackadder summed it up best: “This is a crisis, a large crisis. A 12-storey crisis with a magnificent entrance hall, carpeting throughout, 24-hour porterage and an enormous sign on the roof saying, ‘This is a Large Crisis!’”
It’s the crisis Thatcher built. It started with the “right to buy” in 1979, which eviscerated the country’s social housing stock. It was followed by Tony Blair’s private finance initiatives, or PFIs, which fragmented local services. And it has been compounded by austerity, which finished local services off. The result of 40 years of free-market extremism is visible all around us: in tent cities, food banks and record-breaking numbers of homeless deaths, which continue to rise every year. Meanwhile, private landlords swim in cash.
When private tenants receive a section 21 notice and find themselves without a home, they’re forced into a misery contest for housing. Unless they tick every box on the checklist, they will have huge difficulty finding a new home. They may find themselves in a converted office block or a shipping container. Others will fall through the net completely and end up on the streets.
Section 21 means tenants can never feel truly secure in their homes, because the rug can be yanked from underneath them at any moment by an unscrupulous landlord. I’ve lived with this unremitting uncertainty for almost all my adult life, and have received many no-fault evictions over the years. On New Year’s Eve a few years ago, my flatmates and I were standing on the hill outside Alexandra Palace in north London, taking in the fireworks. We received a text. “All tenants must vacate within the month due to refurbishments. HAPPY NEW YEAR!”, it read.
I was fortunate enough to have just received a fresh paycheque. Many aren’t so lucky. They may receive their notice between gigs, or during a dispute with the DWP, while myriad other factors can make the hugely stressful task of finding a new home practically impossible.
It feels as if the government is actively trying to make as many people poor as possible, through tax breaks for the rich, record inflation and a refusal to increase the minimum wage or benefits sufficiently. Add soaring food, fuel and energy prices into this equation and you have a perfect storm of misery on the horizon.
This misery is a political choice. Truss should know by now that she’s living on borrowed time. She can use this time to continue to hurt the most vulnerable in our society, or she can find her compassion and do the right things: ban no-fault evictions, scrap the benefits cap, raise wages and benefits in line with inflation, raise taxes on top earners and commit to building more social housing.
The Conservative party are already subsidising people’s housing costs through housing benefit, much of which is paid into the pockets of private landlords. Wouldn’t it be more efficient to spend that money on building long-term, affordable social housing, rather than empowering landlords who have no interest in meeting the needs of the poorest renters?
Daniel Lavelle writes about mental health, homelessness and social care. He is the author of Down and Out: Surviving the Homelessness Crisis