Greens will introduce rent controls, but Labour's proposals are unworkable

Green MSP Ariane Burgess explains why Labour proposals to introduce a rent freeze are unworkable and would heighten the risk of eviction; setting out what Greens are doing instead to respond to the concerns raised.

• The Labour amendment on a rent freeze is at high risk of successful challenge which could impact on the Bill as a whole, including hard-won extra protections against eviction.
• The amendment would significantly increase the incentive for landlords to evict tenants as a way of increasing rent.
• Alternative proposals to strengthen the way tenants can challenge rent rises respond to the issue of high rents in ways which are actually workable.

Cost of living pressures have become acute over the course of 2022. Energy bills, food prices, transport costs. And the costs of renting. Over the last few months I have come across some appalling stories of landlords hiking rents or tenants being forced to outbid each other to secure a let. Tenants are right to be angry.

That is why Greens entered government last year with the commitment to implement rent controls at the earliest opportunity. We are blazing a trail. Rent controls in any significant sense haven’t been seen in the UK since they were scrapped by the Tories in the 1980s. No other part of the UK is taking forward this work in such detail and at such pace. But, equally, being in the vanguard means time-consuming and painstaking work to assemble the evidence, design the policy, consult on proposals – all to make sure that what is developed provides real and lasting benefit.

However, I also fully understand the impatience of campaigners who say, rightly, that the pressures are here and now. That, no doubt, is where this week’s proposed amendment to the Coronavirus Recovery and Reform Bill has come from, seeking to apply a rent freeze to almost all private rented tenancies from later this summer until the end of 2024.

The Coronavirus Bill is not a housing bill. Its focus is on public health threats, extending temporary measures to manage the impact of Covid, mainly in the justice system, and putting some reforms onto a permanent footing which have demonstrated their value over the last two years. Into this last category fall two changes which provide private tenants with extra protection against eviction, and which have been warmly welcomed by campaigners.

Introducing a rent freeze proposal at the final stage of the Bill is very different since it isn’t seeking to embed something that has been in place temporarily. I understand its appeal but only if it is workable and provides the benefit which tenants need.

Sadly, the amendment does neither. Legislation going through parliament is expected to go through consultation and evidence-gathering. That is the process Green colleagues are going through with rent controls, including dialogue with opposition MSPs, tenants unions like Living Rent and other organisations involved in this area. So, without that process, the rent freeze proposal is inevitably at very high risk of successful challenge. This would have two consequences – first that any intended respite for tenants would unravel at the first tug; secondly, it could impact on the Bill as a whole, with possible delay to all those important changes in it, including the protections against eviction which are widely supported and which will expire in September unless this Bill is secured.

There is also a wider and equally serious impact on tenants. The amendment seeks to prevent any landlord with an assured, short assured or private residential tenancy from increasing the rent once a tenancy has started and for a period of almost two and a half years. But that only applies to “in-tenancy” rises. Each time a tenancy changes hands a new rent would be set. So the consequence of the amendment would be to create a massive incentive for landlords who want to raise rents to bring tenancies to an end, using whatever grounds they can, earlier than they otherwise would. I am certain that setting off a tidal wave of evictions is not what the amendment wants to cause; but that would be the effect.

So if the amendment proposed is not the answer – indeed would make things worse – what can be done? The Shared Policy Programme between the Scottish Government and the Green Group of MSPs commits to rent controls in new primary legislation. For the reasons outlined above, short-circuiting that introduces significant risk in an area which we already know is bristling with vested interests ready to go to court to stop the radical measures which we know are needed.

But changing laws is only one tool in the box. Other steps could be taken right now, using existing uniquely Scottish powers which already allow tenants to challenge rent rises, but which are very under-used. First of all, by making sure many more tenants know about these rights and get the help they need to challenge them. Secondly, by improving the transparency of the process by which rent changes are notified. And thirdly, picking up on a suggestion made to me by campaigners, looking at a wider range of factors brought into play when Rent Officers are judging proposed rent rises.

Alongside those targeted steps, the Scottish Government should build on its wider commitments to tackle the cost of living crisis, amounting to almost £3 billion this year and ranging from free bus passes for all young people, offsetting the UK Government’s savage bedroom tax or benefit cap and supporting carers. Nowhere else in the UK offers a package of this scale and range and every opportunity should be taken to build on it.

The pressures facing tenants, and other households, are too serious to become the latest example of political point-scoring. Reforms need to be workable, deliverable and provide benefit both now and in the long term. That is what makes the difference.

Green MSP Ariane Burgess is Green spokesperson on housing.