Government Support Available to Tenants Through Winter

In September, the government confirmed various measures that will be in place over the winter months to support renters. While much of what was announced was simply extending or amending existing measures, the announcement will still have provided some relief for nervous tenants. 

 Notice periods for repossession claims remain extended

After six months and two extensions, the eviction ban finally came to an end on 21 September, meaning that the courts will now begin to hear repossession cases again. However, the extended notice period for repossessions remains. A landlord needs to give a tenant at least six months’ notice to move out, and this will remain in force until at least March 2021.

However, in a concession to landlords, the government has granted an exception for the worst offenders, reducing the minimum notice period to four weeks in cases where the tenant owes more than six months' rent.

New processes for repossession hearings

As repossession hearings resume, the government has reassured landlords that courts will be prioritising those claims involving antisocial behaviour or extremely high rent arrears that have left the landlord facing serious debt. 

This should come as a relief to landlords whose tenants were already well in arrears back in March when the ban came in, but it’s worth knowing that cases from before 3 August will need to be ‘reactivated’ by the landlord for them to proceed. Landlords will also need to give the courts information on how their tenants have been affected by the pandemic.

No evictions in local lockdown areas

With vast areas of the UK under local lockdowns, and more likely to follow, evictions will not be enforced in these areas. The wording here is important though. The courts will still be processing eviction claims, and repossession orders will still be granted – it’s just that bailiffs won’t be enforcing them.

This is presumably because local lockdowns are designed to stop multiple households gathering in homes, and if people are evicted by bailiffs then it is likely to force them to find shelter with family and friends, increasing their coronavirus risk. 

A Christmas truce

The prime minister loves a good World War Two analogy – frequently casting himself as a sort of peroxide Churchill – but in its latest tenant support announcement, the government has harked back to the trenches of the First World War for inspiration.

The latest guidance talks about a ‘Christmas truce’ – referencing the famous unofficial ceasefires along the Western Front in 1914 where British, French and German soldiers exchanged chocolate and souvenirs, sang carols and played football together. In the context of 2020, the Christmas truce means that bailiffs will not be enforcing evictions during the weeks around Christmas, except in extreme cases of antisocial behaviour or domestic violence. Football and chocolate are not mentioned. 

Discretionary housing grants

As winter approaches, local councils may also be able to help vulnerable tenants out with ‘discretionary housing payments’. These can potentially be a lifeline to tenants who are struggling to pay their rent, and while they already existed before the current crisis, there’s an extra £40 million in the pot this year. 

Wider support measures

In truth, most of these measures are focused on postponing the inevitable for tenants who are already in a hole. Rather more valuable to tenants are the various other government schemes that will hopefully stop them getting into arrears in the first place.

While the government’s generous furlough scheme is set to finish at the end of October, this will be replaced by the new Job Support Scheme – which has a slightly different objective. Essentially it’s designed for companies who are short of business at the moment but expect things to perk up again in the spring. Rather than reducing the number of full-time staff, the government wants businesses like these to keep more people on part-time, and is offering to help top up their wages to at least 77% of their normal full-time salary. The snag is that it’s significantly more expensive for the employer, and it remains to be seen what the take-up is like. It’s really only a short-term measure aimed at saving what the chancellor calls ‘viable’ jobs, but it should hopefully help a decent number of people who might otherwise be made redundant.

Importantly, tenants on benefits will continue to receive local housing allowance (LHA) at the increased rate that was brought in earlier this year. Back when the crisis first kicked off, the government finally restored housing benefit to a level that would allow tenants on benefits to afford the bottom 30% of rents in their local area. Coming after many years of benefits freezes, this has been a welcome development for many of the UK’s most vulnerable tenants.

Other temporary changes to the benefits system will also remain in place over winter, including the increased standard allowance and the relaxed minimum income threshold for Universal Credit. In simple terms, more people are eligible for benefits and they should get a slightly larger amount.

The outlook

Each week at the moment seems to bring a new range of developments and localised action. It’s a fast-moving situation, and while the latest  raft of measures should be of some help to tenants facing a winter of uncertainty, the government may have to go further if lockdowns become more widespread and restrictive.