The Renting Homes Bill has passed, intriguingly voted on by 60 AMs who are mostly landlords and tenants themselves. You can see their declarations of interests at the beginning of the debate (found early on in the session here) where, as a matter of procedure, all AMs have to say what might be a factor in policy and voting decisions. Following this odd ‘I am Spartacus’ moment, Let Down wondered which of these AMs would you want to be your landlord? Or perhaps a better question, which party would you want to be your landlord?

After all, following the Assembly elections in May, whoever is in power will be able to set fitness for human habitation standards (and decide what that actually means) for private properties and change what terms have to be in every tenancy contract. And that’s just within this Bill; the complicated nature of this legislation means an informed renter also has to take account of the Housing Act, passed in Wales in 2014.

The Housing Act included the crucial change that all landlords will now have to be licensed under ‘Rent Smart Wales’. Yes, we’re still getting the paperwork sorted. The Welsh Government (nor other governments in the UK) don’t even know how many landlords or privately rented properties there actually are. Because of this, Let Down very much welcomes the licensing and looks forward to it being used to benefit tenants through accurate data. We also hope it will blacklist those landlords who create unsafe and debt-creating conditions in their businesses, as we’ve tried to show in our Letting Agents Advisor. The idea behind this is that the Licensing Authority (Cardiff Council) can take away licenses from those who break the law, but Let Down also wants to see prosecution for criminal landlords and an assurance that the landlord could not just use, for example, an agent or a spouse to rent through in future.

Renting Homes Bill overall

After a long battle, the Renting Homes Bill ended up being more of a ‘tidying up’ exercise in legislation rather than anything ground breaking. It’s great that contracts are simplified and mechanisms put in place for model contracts and standards, but it could have gone so much further. However, we’re very pleased that organisations like us, Shelter, Tai Pawb, Welsh Tenants, NUS and many others made a positive difference in collaborating on our priorities to help tenants. It’s from this joint lobbying that two damaging parts of the Bill were removed: renting to 16 year olds, without safeguards, and taking away the very little security tenants have in the 6 month moratorium, where they cannot be evicted in the first 6 months of a tenancy (this is radically different in the rest of Europe, where much longer tenancies of 3-5 years are the norm).

The Minister, Lesley Griffiths, decided to change these at the last stage, after negotiating with Plaid Cymru who drew a red line and would not let the Bill pass without such concessions.

Tenants’ Tribunal

We’re very thankful to the Peter Black, the Lib Dem spokesperson for repeatedly pushing for the Residential Property Tribunal (RPT) to be expanded. Welsh Conservative spokesperson, Mark Isherwood, has also argued for this. In the final debate, Mark said it was needed “to ensure fairness, and to allow tenants who can’t access court, or fear accessing court, a chance to have their case heard by another trusted authority. We must heed the Let Down in Wales campaign, supported by Tai Pawb, Shelter Cymru, and Welsh Tenants, who say that a private tenants’ tribunal, or an expansion of the Residential Property Tribunal, would encourage and promote mediation between landlords and tenants; ‘It needs to provide a safe, free route for tenants to settle disputes with bad landlords. The Renting Homes Bill originally proposed to make the Residential Property Tribunal smaller in scope, but with legal aid being reduced and the courts only open to those who can afford it, it’s more important than ever that tenants have a safe place to tackle landlords.’ Frankly, without this, tenants will remain exposed, and the fundamental objective of this Bill will fail to be delivered.

Peter Black called for the RPT’s expansion, stating it was clear from Committee evidence that over reliance of this Bill on the courts would not just be difficult but also expensive for tenants. He also pointed out that as legal aid is “going or not available”, there is a “built in bias towards the landlord”. He felt the RPT could act as a Housing Court for Wales.

Plaid’s Jocelyn Davies sympathized with this, but her party abstained. She warned of “reinventing the counts under a different name” and said they’re not as informal as people would like to think. Let Down acknowledges that it is still not ideal that any tenant should have to fear such formal proceedings, nor should innocent landlords with bad tenants, but the Tribunal should be utilised to provide advice and mediation services, as well as Tribunals. Ideally, it would be more as a deterrent than anything else, so landlords know they cannot just threaten to sue tenants to make them back down.

Whilst the Minister did not accept all arguments, we were heartened to see that some work is being done on this. She pointed to a working group set up by the Civil Justice Council which oversees the modernisation of the civil justice system. She explained: “The group is tasked with considering the allocation of disputes and the deployment of judges between the county court and tribunals and it aims to enhance access to justice and to improve efficiency in the resolution of landlord and tenant disputes. I strongly support this group’s objectives and my officials have already spoken to the chair to ensure that Wales’s interests are taken into account, and a meeting is being arranged. I do believe that the group’s findings and recommendations could have very far-reaching consequences.” Great news, although we’ll wait and see what comes of it.

Letting agent fees

Although Plaid abstained on the tribunal, they did move a very interesting amendment that we’re fully supportive of on letting agent fees. Jocelyn’s amendment would have ensured that Welsh Ministers could – not necessarily would – make regulations on letting agent fees in the future. This Bill has been bad at differentiating between landlords and agents (which is a major flaw given the varying service tenants receive from them and the ability to regulate businesses versus individuals). This is something Let Down called for in its manifesto and we’re glad Plaid is pushing it forward. The Lib Dems also supported it and Peter Black regretted they could not suggest more wide-ranging measures on agents, due to the way the Bill was written.

Scotland have banned fees leading to no detriment to the rental market and has been an interesting area to watch. The Minister rejected the amendment on the grounds of needing ‘detailed consultation’, which is a bit of a ridiculous excuse given this would have only provided provision to do this through regulations in future (which of course would have involved a consultation first). We wonder if this was to avoid the wrath of landlord lobbying; perhaps the Welsh Government, as well as tenants, are fearful of landlords?

Quality of private housing

Another key call from Let Down is the creation of a Welsh Tenants Quality Standard, in line with the Welsh Housing Quality Standard (WHQS) that the social housing sector has. Quality of properties was a big part of the Bill’s on-going scrutiny with AMs demanding an indication from the Minister of what she’ll do with the regulations, since they’ll be passed in secondary legislation rather than within the Bill itself. Not a particularly transparent form of governance. A letter from her didn’t satisfy many AMs, seemingly only addressing the most basic of needs.

The Welsh Conservatives and Liberal Democrats attempted to change this in amendments but these were not passed. The Minister insisted that regulations will make this more flexible; we’ll keep an eye on them and make sure this flexibility isn’t abused! On the plus, it does mean that standards could be upgraded more easily. For example, we wouldn’t demand private housing quality in line with social immediately, as it will take landlords (especially the smaller ones with only one property) some time to improve tenants’ homes. But instead Let Down suggests a manageable increase so that all tenants can finally benefit from a guarantee that their home will be safe, warm and suitable.

In conclusion, the Bill could have been worse, if it stayed with those other two proposals. So thank you to Plaid Cymru for negotiating them away. But it could have been so much better.

So who would we rather rent from? At the moment, it seems like the Welsh Lib Dems would make a fair and reasonable landlord, but a Plaid Cymru landlord might waive your letting agent fees. The Lib Dems did state at their conference that housing would be a high priority for them, so were it to be a tenants’ market, they’d probably be our top choice as a landlord. Of course, the 2016 manifestos are yet to be finalised, so this may change yet!

In our next blog post, we’ll take a look at how the parties are doing on developing policies for renters.