Here’s two easy ways to fix the Renters (Reform) Bill

The Westminster government’s Renters (Reform) Bill is about to hit Report stage in the Commons before moving off to the Lords.

Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe

DLUHC Secretary Michael Gove is said to be “doubling down” on his commitment to ban no-fault evictions, which has put him on a collision course with landlords, by getting rid of fixed-term tenancies – and replacing them all with rolling ones.

These will only be able to be stopped by a landlord for specific reasons like anti-social behaviour or someone not paying their rent. But tenants will be able to stop them at any time as long as they give two months’ notice – both before they move in and after, with any upfront rent paid returned to tenants.

As the Bill has progressed the landlord lobby has become increasingly concerned about the student market – warning that the proposals will “destroy supply” and push rents up for students as a result.

They’ve already successfully persuaded the government to allow landlords to “take possession” over the Summer where a group of students rents a house jointly – but now want the government to go further.

They often quote similar impacts in Scotland – despite the evidence there pointing to a demand issue rather than a supply issue. Landlords want to ease the problem faced by students by taking away rights others students would have. But there is another way.

You brought them here

When the government liberalised home domiciled student numbers a decade ago and then accelerated international PGT growth a few years back, it pretty much ignored housing on the basis that the magic of the market would rustle up bedspaces.

And because we adopted a largely laissez-faire approach to bed-spaces, we didn’t make it anyone’s job to monitor the relationship between supply and demand, location and quality of student housing – fatally split between government departments, local authorities, universities, the corporate social responsibility considerations of PBSA providers and investors, and students themselves.

If you place the responsibility on students, there has to be much much better information and consumer protection enforcement. That’s not coming any time soon, and the competition between providers for students will always cause a tendency to mislead on housing by omission if not by direct action in a way that the CMA seemingly couldn’t care less about, and OfS has no remit over.

If you place it on local authorities, you have to give them money and powers. And honestly? In a wider housing crisis, there almost certainly aren’t any local authorities that would act in earnest to prioritise beds for students, let alone international students, given the acute problems for other citizens, the way we “other” students as educational tourists, and the way in which politicians under pressure from voters will blame universities for exacerbating the problem.

That leaves universities. Where a university recruits students that it knows will be living away from home, there are factors to consider when resolving how many it can recruit – given there are no caps. One relates to where those students – both home domiciled and international – will live.

The truth is that universities previously didn’t have to think a lot about it outside of first year guarantees – but it’s increasingly important now given the scale of HE and the wider housing crisis.

If we consider it pretty essential that students will be able to rent somewhere that’s affordable, of a reasonable distance from campus and of a reasonable quality, it’s not unreasonable to ask universities to take that into account when recruiting. It’s something that Universities UK already suggests universities do in its guidance – yet I still hear of it not happening in any kind of systematic way across the UK.

That is not to discount the pressure on universities to increase international enrolments in order to make their budgets work. But it is to say that when that involves recruiting students into a tight or even undersupplied housing market, it just transfers a financial pressure point from the provider to the student body – and in the end, back to the provider.

A simple and straightforward new section of the Bill would simply require higher education providers to pay due regard to the statutory guidance when recruiting international students, be required to liaise with other providers and local authorities on planning matters, and would be under a duty to ensure students had the right information on price and availability of housing when applying.

And they would be regulated on doing all of that by OfS in a new C Condition – protecting the interests of all students.

The bodies that have the most power over supply of student houses are the ones that create demand. Demand is created when universities recruit students. They should be given responsibilities that match that power.

Halls and redress

There’s one other major hole in the Bill as it stands – and that concerns private halls.

When we imagine this bit of the market we think of players like Unite – but increasingly we’re looking at small private investors that convert an old shop or office into bedspaces.

Under the Bill, all PBSA will be exempted from the new rights on cancellation and contracts. And students in PBSA won’t be able to access the new Ombudsperson.

The government says that students in these settings are protected because they would all have to be part of one of Unipol’s “National Codes”.

The difference between the regimes for PBSA and HMOs are causing the landlord lobby to argue that there is not a “fair” playing field.

But not giving what are more likely to be international students the same rights over what are likely to be more expensive bed spaces is unfair – it’s just that there’s another way to fix it.

The National Codes are effective at setting standards for this “niche” part of the market. But for rights over cancelling, standards and redress, there’s no reason at all why students should be treated any differently.

This is an easy one to fix – just treat students in halls as tenants like we do for everyone else, and allow them all to access the Ombudsperson – which should also be directed to prioritise complaints from students on the basis of their likely temporary stay in the housing.

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