Border politics – how private renters in Scotland are getting a better deal

Border politics – how private renters in Scotland are getting a better deal

As the Brexit negotiations enter a crucial stage, we’ve been hearing a lot about borders. At Shelter, we’ve also recently been paying a lot of attention to one of our borders – but we’ve been more focused on the Scottish border and how renters either side of the divide are getting a very different deal.

If you are a private renter searching for a property near the Scottish border, you may notice some differences between the adverts for homes north of the border and those south of the border. When you put two adverts side by side it might feel like a game of spot the difference but in practice these differences mean that renters in England are getting a far worse deal.

In this blog, we’ll look at some of the key differences between conditions for renters in each area and why the government could learn from what is happening in the Scottish rental sector to give private renters in England a better deal.

The right to stay

This time last year we were hailing a new dawn for renters in Scotland as a significant shake-up of private renting legislation gave private renters far greater security to stay in their homes. Since 1 December 2017, anyone signing a new tenancy agreement in Scotland will have signed a private residential tenancy – this new tenancy gives renters an open ended tenancy, where they have the flexibility to leave at any time with 28 days’ notice. However, landlords can only ask them to leave if they have legitimate grounds to do so.

The security offered by the private residential tenancy contrasts starkly with the lack of security offered to private renters in England. Unlike in many of our neighbouring European countries, renters in England are typically only offered a 6 or 12-month contract and outside of the fixed term, renters can be asked to leave at any point with only 2 months’ notice without any justification. The insecurity of renting on short-term contracts has a significant impact on the well-being of private renters and 84% of renters say they would like to be able to stay in their property for as long as they choose to.[1]

There could be good news on the horizon for renters in England as the government recently consulted on proposals to change the law to introduce three-year tenancies. Almost 6,000 of our supporters, including over 3,500 private renters, responded to the government’s consultation in August. Three months later and we’re still waiting for a response but we hope the government will follow-through on changing the law so that all renters are given more security. Ultimately, we think that the government should be looking to introduce something similar to the open-ended tenancies in Scotland, but changing the law to give renters three-year tenancies would certainly be a first step in the right direction.

Renting from a registered landlord

Another thing you might notice on property adverts in Scotland, which is absent from adverts in England, is a landlord registration number. Landlords in Scotland have to register with their local council and as part of this registration process they have to pass a ‘fit and proper’ test to show that they are suitable to be a landlord.

This means that before renting a property, private renters in Scotland are able to search the national landlord register to check that their landlord is legitimate. This is not possible for renters in England who often know very little about who their landlord is, let alone whether they are a ‘fit and proper’ person. For some time we’ve called for a national landlord register to enable better communication with private landlords and support enforcement. But to date that call appears to have fallen on deaf ears.

Paying fees

Perhaps the most galling sight for private renters comparing property adverts in Scotland and England is the phrase ‘fees apply’ on properties advertised south of the border. The charging of ‘premiums’ has been illegal in Scotland since 1984 although the Scottish Parliament had to clarify the legislation in 2012. But since 2012, Scottish private renters have been safe in the knowledge that they no longer need to pay extortionate letting fees when renting a new property.

The good news for renters in England is that this is one area where we are finally catching up with Scotland. The Tenant Fees Bill is due to have its Report Stage in the House of Lords on 11 December and once enacted this legislation will ban all upfront letting fees whilst also introducing a cap on security and holding deposits. Some final issues are still being ironed out but we’re almost there and we hope that early next year private renters in England, like those in Scotland, will no longer have to worry about the phrase ‘fees apply’.

But even once the ban on letting agent fees comes into force, private renters in England will still be getting a significantly worse deal than their neighbours in Scotland. They will continue to face insecurity and all the issues that can entail. We look forward to the government’s response to the longer tenancies consultation to see if they have learned from the positive example set in Scotland.

[1] YouGov for Shelter, survey of 1029 private renters, August 2018