Katy Dickson
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Katy Dickson
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Posted in Housing
23/05/2016
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Politics and policy – how the new PRS legislation was made

I began working for Scottish Land & Estates just over two years ago and have just been through my first full Bill process from beginning to end.

The Private Housing (Tenancies) (Scotland) Bill has recently been given Royal Assent and is now an Act of the Scottish Parliament. At the end of 2017 it will be out with the old Short Assured Tenancies (SATs) and in with the new Private Rented Tenancies (PRTs). The details can be found in our members Briefing Notes but here I would like to focus on the process to create this legislation which will have a huge impact on any residential landlord or tenant in Scotland.

Stage 1 May 2014 – Review the current system
An expert Review Group (including Scottish Land & Estates) was appointed to examine the current regime, and recommended to Ministers what was required. The group reported in May 2014 that a new tenancy regime was needed. There were polarised opinions on the group, but the report which was signed off and published stated: “What would be put in its place, following this modernisation exercise, would be a clear route for landlord re-possession, where the tenant was found to be in breach of the new private tenancy, or following expiry of the agreed tenancy term.”

Stage 2 December 2014 and March 2015– Consult the public, then consult them again
These consultation stages became blighted by lobbying groups playing a numbers game. The first consultation attracted 561 standard responses and 1,982 campaign responses. In the second consultation there were 340 standard responses and 7,349 campaign responses across 6 different campaigns and petitions. Should thousands of campaign responses be counted in the same way as individuals who spend time understanding the issues and setting out their position? The analysis separated out campaign responses but the figures were used as the Scottish Government saw fit.

It became apparent at this stage that the Minister had made up her mind what she wanted to see from a new regime regardless of public consultation.

Stage 3 October 2015 – Bill as introduced
When the Bill was published we were despondent that there were a number of details missing which we felt should have been included, and likewise a number of inclusions that we believed would not lead to a successful sector. At this stage I travelled around Scotland over two days to meet members to inform them of the proposals, and seek their input to required changes. I was met with some disbelief, lots of open mindedness, a few soggy sandwiches, and more questions than the Spanish Inquisition. I found it encouraging that members wanted to engage with the new proposals, but also difficult that I could not give them any certainly.

Stage 4 November 2015 – Written evidence
In gathering evidence to provide to the Infrastructure and Capital Investment Committee, I was encouraged by the number of positive stories I received from members. There were examples of building an extension on a let property to meet the needs of an expanding family, offering homes to those who needed fresh starts and a chance after declaring bankruptcy, experiencing relationship breakdowns and needing a first home. I also heard tales of the problems our members face daily. One member, a widowed lady living alone, feels threatened on a daily basis by her tenant. Another has had to mediate between warring neighbours who can’t get on, and one experienced a tenant abandoning a property and pouring concrete down every plughole and toilet on his way out. Not very pleasant.

Stage 5 November/December 2015– Oral evidence
I was delighted to share our thoughts and ideas with the committee. Along with other landlord’s representatives I had two and half hours in a round table session. The committee were interested and engaged, and there was genuine concern for the problems we raised. Those giving evidence were reasonable and sought to provide genuine evidence, both qualitative and quantitative, which would help the committee. I was encouraged by the system and had high hopes that the MSPs who told me that something should be done about certain issues would follow through on that thought.

As well as the landlord’s evidence session the committee also heard from those representing tenants and those representing legal and local authority facets. I was particularly disappointed with the selection of legal stakeholders. I fully supported Govan Law Centre being asked to give evidence as they are at the forefront of tackling the worst of the private rented sector. However, this extreme view was not balanced with anybody giving the more common view or, dare I even say it, the view where landlords have unduly suffered poor tenants.

Stage 5 February/March 2016– Amendments
Amendments occur over two sessions with a revised Bill being published after the first. This is the opportunity for MSPs to suggest changes to the initially drafted Bill. There were over 100 amendments lodged at both sessions. Many of them were technical amendments which is evidence of the rushed drafting. It is rather concerning though at this stage when completely new ideas come into play. If there is political will then these can be accepted with no consultation and very little consideration. This is what happened with the initial tenancy period being scrapped as a disproportionate response to a single stakeholders comment in the evidence session.

Stage 6 March 2016 –Bill passed, what’s next?
I enjoyed the high intensity of the Bill process but grew frustrated that there was not more time for issues to be ironed out or for those considering amendments to think through the potential consequences more fully. From beginning to end we regularly engaged with the civil servants – a small team working tirelessly to meet the deadlines while ensuring they understood the issues and fed these back to the Minister. It was a shame MSPs appeared to lose understanding of these points which they showed at the early stages in the process. They also lost sight of the review group’s recommendation and the bank of knowledge the consultation process gave them. By the time it got to voting it was about the party line and getting the headline wins. Not too tricky in a majority government.

We now look to input to the crucial secondary legislation and try to equip members with the information they need to manage the new regime. Things are stacking up against private landlords, putting the sector, and ultimately the tenants’ interest, at risk. This is not the polarised examination of landlord versus tenant which it became in the debating chamber. With a new Housing Minister and cross party support to improve the sector we are looking forward to what this next parliamentary session will bring.

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