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The coronavirus (Covid-19) outbreak has had significant implications for households’ ability to retain their homes and, for those that are street homeless, to be able to secure a safe place in which to follow Public Health England’s advice on self-isolation, social distancing and hygiene.

In response, the UK Government introduced a series of housing support measures, some of which have been amended and extended since March 2020:

  • Provisions were included in the Coronavirus Act 2020 to extend the notice periods that certain tenants in England and Wales are entitled to receive when a landlord is seeking to recover possession of their homes. These notice periods have subsequently been amended. On 21 August the UK Government said that landlords in England would be required to provide tenants with 6 months’ notice, except in cases involving issues such as anti-social behaviour and domestic abuse. In summary:
    1. Notices served in England between 26 March and 28 August for tenancies in scope had to give the tenant a minimum of three months’ notice to leave. Initially, the three month period applied to notices served in England from 26 March up to 30 September 2020 but Regulations laid on 28 August have changed the notice requirements (see below).
    2. Regulations laid in England on 28 August 2020 have amended Schedule 29 to the Coronavirus Act 2020 to introduce notice periods in England which vary depending on the nature of the tenancy and the Ground on which the landlord is seeking possession. In summary, if a landlord is not seeking to evict a tenant for anti-social behaviour, serious rent arrears, or where the tenant has no right to rent, there is now a requirement to give a minimum of six months’ notice. For example, a section 21 notice served on an assured shorthold tenant on or after 29 August must give the tenant six months’ notice. The new notice periods will remain in force until 31 March 2021.
    3. Notices served in Wales between 26 March and to 23 July 2020 had to give tenants three months’ notice. On 23 July 2020 the Welsh Government laid Regulations to temporarily increase notice periods in respect of assured and assured shorthold tenancies from three to six months (with some exceptions). The six month notice period in Wales initially applied to notices served on or after 24 July up to 30 September 2020 but this period has been extened to 31 March 2021.
  • The Master of the Rolls issued a Practice Direction to suspend all ongoing housing possession action in England and Wales from 27 March 2020 for a period of 90 days. On 5 June 2020, the Secretary of State, Robert Jenrick, announced an extension of the moratorium on possession actions for a further two months. The Government confirmed that the courts would start to process repossession cases again from 24 August 2020 but on 21 August a further 4-week suspension to 20 September was confirmed. The Civil Procedure Rules were amended at short notice to achieve this. Repossession actions in the courts will begin again from 21 September.
  • A new Practice Direction (PD 55C) was due to come into effect on 23 August 2020 in preparation for the lifting of the stay on possessions. The PD came into effect on 20 September. It places new requirements on claimants seeking a repossession order and will remain in place until 28 March 2021 (subject to reviews).
  • The Government said that work was underway to provide that when the moratorium on evictions is lifted, private landlords in England and Wales would be required to adhere to a revised version of The Pre-Action Protocol for Possession Claims by Social Landlords.  The most recent version of Government Guidance for Landlords and Tenants (August 2020) made no reference to publication of a new protocol but on 17 September the National Residential Landlords Association (NRLA) published Pre-Action Plan: Managing arrears and avoiding possession claims.
  • On 10 September the Secretary of State announced that bailiffs will not enforce evictions where local lockdown measures are in force which restrict access to premises to “prevent tenants being forced out of their home at an unsettling time in areas when the public health risks could be greater.” Guidance for bailiffs is promised.
  • During the announcement of 10 September, the Secretary of State said steps would be taken to prevent evictions taking place over the Christmas period other than in the most serious cases. He said that this would be achieved through guidance to bailiffs.
  • The Chancellor announced an increase in Housing Benefit and Universal Credit “so that the local housing allowance will cover at least 30% of market rents” within a Broad Rental Market Area.
  • The Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) issued guidance to lenders advising them to operate payment holidays for owner occupiers and buy-to-let landlords of up to 3 months. On the 22 May, the FCA proposed that firms should, as appropriate, extend mortgages holidays for a further three months. This advice was confirmed on 2 June 2020. Lenders have been advised to exercise forbearance during the crisis. The FCA has said that lenders should not take forward repossession claims before 31 October 2020. Guidance for mortgage lenders has been published to cover the period after the current guidance expires on 31 October 2020.
  • The Government announced £3.2 million in emergency funding for local authorities in England to support rough sleepers and other vulnerable homeless people into appropriate accommodation during the Covid-19 pandemic. By May nearly 15,000 vulnerable people who were sleeping rough, or at risk of sleeping rough, had been provided emergency accommodation.
  • The Government set up a rough sleeping taskforce to develop plans to ensure that as few people as possible return to life on the streets. To enable this the Next Steps Accommodation Programme is providing two distinct funding streams for local authorities and their partners in 2020/21:
    • £105 million for shorter-term/interim accommodation and immediate support; and
    • £161 million to deliver 3,300 units of longer-term, move-on accommodation and support.

Allocations for the short-term aspects of this funding were announced on 17 September – 274 authorities will receive funding.

Having welcomed the Government’s commitment to introduce a “complete ban on evictions”, following publication of amendments to the Coronavirus Bill several commentators said the changes fell short of the initial commitment. However, the suspension of ongoing housing possession action from 27 March was acknowledged as a significant step in providing security of tenure for most tenants in England and Wales during the Covid-19 outbreak. The Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government issued guidance for landlords and tenants (updated August 2020) and the Welsh Government published a series of guidance notes under the heading Renting a home: coronavirus.

The Scottish Government legislated to strengthen tenants’ security of tenure and a Bill introduced in the NI Assembly to apply a 12-week notice to quit period to all tenancies obtained Royal Assent on 4 May 2020. On 12 August, Nicola Sturgeon said that the Scottish Government intended, subject to parliamentary approval, to extended emergency provisions on notice periods to the end of March 2021. On 19 August, Communities Minister for Northern Ireland, Carál Ní Chuilín, said that emergency protections for tenants would be extended to 31 March 2021.

The end of the suspension on eviction action in England and Wales on 20 September has led commentators to ask questions about the implications for landlords and tenants. Homelessness charities and tenant bodies warn of a potential surge in evictions and homelessness when longer notice periods end in March 2021.

There were calls to use the extension on the eviction ban for 4 weeks to 20 September to introduce more protections for those facing financial difficulties. The National Residential Landlords Association (NRLA) described the extension as “totally unacceptable” and called for “a comprehensive package of financial support to help landlords.”

The Housing, Communities and Local Government Select Committee published the interim report of its inquiry to assess the impact of the coronavirus crisis on homelessness, rough sleeping and the private rented sector on 22 May 2020. The report urged the Government to implement six key measures to protect rough sleepers and renters:

    • Provide local authorities with an annual £100 million dedicated funding stream to end rough sleeping in England once and for all.
    • Compensate local authorities for provision offered to rough sleepers with no recourse to public funds as a result of the current crisis.
    • Boost the immediate availability of appropriate supported housing, by providing targeted grant funding for local authorities and housing associations to acquire properties and removing restrictions on Right to Buy receipts.
    • Amend existing housing legislation to give judges more discretion in eviction cases concerning rent arrears accrued as a result of the pandemic.
    • Accelerate plans to introduce a Renters’ Reform Bill to abolish section 21 ‘no fault’ evictions.
    • Maintain the Local Housing Allowance Rate (LHA) rate at the 30th percentile long-term and consider what the impact on renters and the wider rental market would be of raising LHA rates further.

The Government’s response to the Committee was published on 25 June 2020.

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