Agents should heed the words of Churchill - David Alexander comment
Housing is one of those areas affected, particularly policies relating to the private rental sector. In England, regulations are more landlord-focused, while in Scotland it’s the other way round, i.e. geared more in favour of the tenant, although having said that, Westminster has played “catch up” with Holyrood on certain improvements such as the tenant deposit scheme and improvements to occupier-safety.
Until recently, the two countries were still far apart on eviction policy, which made it easier for landlords to regain possession in England than in Scotland. That, however, has all changed as a result of emergency legislation brought on by the coronavirus. Although evictions in England were banned in March, shortly before courts were due to sit again to hear repossession cases in September, the government decided to make more concessions. These included a commitment not to allow evictions over Christmas and no enforcement action in areas under local lockdown.
This brought England closer to Scotland where evictions have been banned until at least March next year. Even before the ban came into place the period for which tenants could be evicted for rent arrears was increased from six months to nine months and it is not yet clear whether this will remain in place once the blanket ban is lifted. It is still possible for landlords to evict tenants for criminal and/or anti-social behaviour but this is often very difficult to prove.
However prior to lockdown, landlords and their agents in Scotland had learned to live with the legislation providing greater tenure protection for tenants. Despite initial misgivings the altered environment has, on the whole, been successfully managed. This has led to a substantial number of English-based agents contacting their Scottish counterparts on dealing with tenant problems when the ultimate sanction – i.e. eviction – is currently not available to them.
Just to clarify, I deliberately used the words “tenant problems” rather than “problem tenants,” the reason being that there are currently a sizeable number of occupants who are of good character and have a good record of paying rent timeously but who now find themselves in arrears, having lost their jobs or suffered a substantial drop in income as a result of the severe downturn in business activities.
I responded by saying that what Scottish agents had learned – even before lockdown – not to “wield the big stick”. Now more than ever, agents and landlords needed to establish a strong dialogue to see if negotiation on payments was possible, an approach to which most renters were generally amenable. I told them that the “no fault” regulatory system on evictions in Scotland had encouraged landlords and agents to create closer relationships with their tenants and to communicate more effectively.
Yes, there will always be those who seek the unattainable. At one extreme you have landlords who still demand full payment of rent without taking into account the tenant’s changed circumstances, no matter how good a payment record he or she had previously. At the other extreme are newly-jobless tenants who think their landlords should show solidarity by foregoing rental income while they remain unemployed.
Thankfully the majority on either side are not like that. Encouraging the tenant to pay through negotiation usually turns out to be a win-win situation for all involved. Even before the pandemic, good tenants down on their luck would make every effort to pay what was affordable until their income stream returned to normal and they could resume paying full rent (and in some cases even make up arrears).
For their part, realistic landlords were aware that court action to evict was costly and time-consuming and that the best (and financially sound) option was to allow the tenant to remain in place, even if it meant a temporary reduction in rental income. As Winston Churchill famously said: “Jaw jaw is better than war war”.
The Scottish system has made all parties more understanding and more able to adapt to the extraordinary circumstances caused by the pandemic – and agents in England would be wise to follow our experience.
David Alexander is managing director of DJ Alexander