The increasing popularity of the Scottish Nationalist Party and other smaller political parties such as Green Party and UKIP is making the outcome of the general election in May very uncertain and another coalition government seems likely.
Eyes are already looking north of the border to the SNP (Scottish Nationalist Party) to try to predict the impact SNP voters will have. So it’s worth looking at what the SNP run Scottish Assembly has done for the private rented sector.
Could it benefit private renters if the SNP formed part of a new UK coalition government?
The Scottish Government has not addressed the issue of security of tenure, the main form or letting being the short assured tenancy (almost identical to the assured shorthold tenancy in England). However, they do have a National Strategy for the Private Rented Sector which is sadly lacking in England, and they have taken some measures to protect tenants, recognising that it’s difficult for tenants without security of tenure to assert their tenancy rights.
One of the most useful things the Scottish Government has done is to introduce a national, mandatory Repairing Standard. The Standard is similar to the requirements in England to keep the structure and installations in good repair, but Scotland has added fire precautions. One big difference in Scotland is that landlords must inform tenants about the Repairing Standard at the start of the tenancy. Another big difference is that any failure to comply is an offence for which landlords can be prosecuted and prevented from letting.
Enforcement of the Repairing Standard lies with the Private Rented Housing Panel (PRHP). Tenants can refer their properties to the Panel if they believe that their landlord is in breach of the Repairing Standard. The Panel will seek to settle disputes through mediation where this is appropriate, and where not, or where mediation fails, the matter is considered by a Private Rented Housing Committee. Legislation is currently going through the Scottish Assembly to enable local authorities to make referrals to the Panel where tenants are reluctant to do so for fear of reprisals.
Rent increases can also be referred to the PRHP, although, like the Property Tribunal in England, there are few referrals from tenants who don’t have security of tenure. The Scottish Assembly might do well to consider allowing third parties such as the local authority to refer rent increases as well as breaches of the Repairing Standard.
Another important feature in Scotland is their National Register of Landlords. It’s a national mandatory requirement for all landlords to register with the local authority where they have rented homes, but if they have properties in more than one local authority area they can register with all the relevant authorities online under one application. To be granted a licence each local authority considers any information held on record by them (or by other local authorities – data is shared) such as compliance with the Repairing Standard, as well as any offences for fraud, discrimination, etc.
The National Register is public, so prospective tenants can check if the landlord is registered before they sign up for a tenancy. Although the Register doesn’t give personal details of the landlord, other than their name and address, the Register will state whether an application to register has been rejected (or previous registration revoked).
The Labour Party is likely to give a commitment to introduce a National Landlord Register for England in its election manifesto. Perhaps a SNP coalition partner might add some urgency to this.
So would a Labour/SNP coalition be good news for private renters? If you believe that the private rented sector needs to be regulated the answer has to be yes. Scotland’s approach is in marked contrast to the Conservative/Lib Dem Coalition Government which has maintained throughout its term that there is no need for regulation of the private rented sector as existing powers are adequate.
This rather begs the question of why, in the 30 years since the Housing Act 1985 set out landlords repairing obligations, conditions in the private rented sector are still so poor.