Support for Renters
I appreciate that the past year has brought unique challenges to renters and those in the residential rental sector. That is why I am relieved that decisive action was taken to protect those in both the private and social rented sectors, which has provided thousands of households throughout England with the certainty they needed during these unprecedented times.
Support was put in place through a pause in evictions in all but the most egregious cases, such as anti-social behaviour, and requirements for six months notice to be given. As we emerge from the worst of the crisis, a four-month notice period is in place until 30th September for non-egregious cases to offer continued protection for tenants.
I recognise the concerns that renters may have now that the eviction moratorium has been lifted. That is why I am pleased that the Government has stepped in to provide extensive financial support to renters, with £140 million in funding available this year through Discretionary Housing Payments for councils to support renters with housing costs. This builds on wider support in place to help households with other costs, such as the £670 million that is available for 2021-22 to help those struggling to pay council tax.
Billions have been injected into the welfare system, including increasing the Universal Credit standard allowance for a further six months until the end of September. The Government's package of financial support has helped to save lives and livelihoods, kept businesses running and assisted those who are struggling the most.
It is very important that landlords and renters continue to work together to agree on affordable repayment plans, established with an understanding of the renter's financial circumstances, and raise potential issues at the earliest opportunity.
Looking to the future, I am assured that the Government is committed to reforming the rental sector for tenants and landlords alike. A package of reforms will be brought forward to drive improvements in standards in rented accommodation, set to be outlined in a White Paper this autumn. I understand that these reforms will include considerations of measures to hold rouge landlords to account for delivering safe and decent housing without penalising good landlords, with the Government committing to exploring the merits of a landlord register. Measures will also enhance renters’ security and improve protections for short-term tenants by abolishing ‘no-fault’ evictions.
I am therefore assured that, building on the substantial support provided throughout the pandemic, the Government is continuing to work to deliver a fairer and more effective rental market.
Protecting Green Spaces
Our beautiful green spaces are an essential part of this country’s natural heritage and, like you, I believe that access to open spaces is important for the health and wellbeing of our communities. I am glad that measures are in place to protect green spaces and give communities increased access to the benefits they provide.
The National Planning Policy Framework makes the importance of access to high-quality open spaces clear. It advises that planning policies “should be based on robust and up-to-date assessments of the need for open space, sport and recreation facilities (including quantitative or qualitative deficits or surpluses) and opportunities for new provision.”
The Framework also states that such open spaces should not be built on unless an assessment shows that the land is surplus to requirements, the loss resulting from the proposed development would be replaced by equivalent or better provision in a sustainable location, or the development is for alternative sport and recreational provision, the benefits of which clearly outweigh the loss.
I was proud to stand on a manifesto that committed to protecting and enhancing our Green Belt. Let me be clear that reforms to the planning system will not change the existing strong protections already in place for our Green Belt and greenfield sites. The National Planning Policy Framework makes clear that Green Belt boundaries should only be altered under justified and fully evidenced exceptional circumstances. It also sets out the steps local planning authorities must take before concluding such exceptional circumstances exist, including the consideration of suitable brownfield sites. £2 million is being provided to councils to crack down on illegal building on the Green Belt, building on the £16 million that has been provided over the last two years to improve and support green spaces and parks in communities across England.
I am confident that the measures outlined above will continue to protect and improve access to our beautiful open spaces, benefitting communities for decades to come.
Cambo Oil Field
The original licensing consent for the Cambo oil field dates back to 2001 and the project is going through normal regulatory processes. The decision on whether to grant consent to Cambo oil field will be taken by the Oil and Gas Authority, who are ultimately responsible, rather than the Secretary of State.
The Government is working hard to drive down demand for fossil fuels however there will continue to be ongoing demand for oil and gas over the coming years, as recognised by the independent Climate Change Committee.
I share your concerns about the current marriage laws and agree that meaningful change needs to take place. You may be interested to know that when the Government held a consultation on this in 2014, the majority of respondents were in favour of changing the law to allow legally valid non-religious belief ceremonies in unrestricted locations.
I know that the Government wants to reform marriage ceremonies to make sure that there is a simple, fair and consistent legal framework, so that people can have a wedding that is meaningful to them.
That is why the Government announced in June 2019 that the Law Commission will conduct a fundamental review of the law on how and where people can legally marry in England and Wales. As part of the project, the Law Commission will be considering how a scheme could include weddings conducted by humanist and other non-religious belief organisations and where weddings should be able to take place.
The Law Commission’s consultation on proposals for reform of the law governing how and where couples can get married closed on 4 January 2021. I understand responses are now being analysed. These responses will inform development of the Law Commission's final policy, to be published in a report with recommendations for Government in the second half of 2021. I understand that the Government will then decide on provision for non-religious belief marriage in light of the Law Commission's recommendations.
I believe that the requirement for venues to be seemly and dignified should be maintained. However, I welcome that, alongside the Law Commission review, outdoor civil wedding and partnership ceremonies in England and Wales are set to be legalised for the first time. This change will take effect on 1 July 2021 and will offer greater choice to couples in a boost to the wedding sector after a very challenging period.
Electrical Safety Bill
I understand that the new Electrical Safety Standards in the Private Rented Sector (England) Regulations have now come into force and I welcome these changes. Ministers are committed to improving protections for private renters and I support them in this endeavour.
The new Regulations require landlords to have the electrical installations in their properties inspected and tested every five years. An electrical safety report must be provided to tenants and the local authority if requested following this inspection. The measures are a major step towards levelling up safety and standards in the private rented sector.
I understand that some landlords may be concerned about the timescale of these regulations, and the fact that they apply to existing tenancies from the 1 April 2021. However, I am confident that the notice period is sufficient given the importance of these Regulations for the safety of tenants.
I recognise that the pandemic may impact these inspections and has meant that people are spending more time in their homes than ever before. Guidance has been provided for tenants, landlords and local authorities to ensure that rented homes are as safe as possible during this time and that maintenance and inspections can be done safely.
If the report shows that remedial work is required, the landlord is not in breach of their duty to comply if they can show that they have taken all reasonable steps to carry it out. I expect local authorities to take a pragmatic approach to enforcement to ensure that all tenants and landlords are supported during coronavirus.
Leasehold Reform & The Duchy of Cornwall
Leaseholders of the duchies and the Crown Estate do not have statutory enfranchisement rights. However, I understand that the Crown and the Duchies of Cornwall and Lancaster have indicated to Parliament that it will act by analogy in most cases to give leaseholders the same rights held by others more broadly.
The Crown has adopted a well-publicised voluntary policy of granting lease extensions, which I have been assured is expected to continue.
COVID-19: Support for Renters
I share your concern about people renting being impacted by the coronavirus outbreak. I am relieved that decisive action has been taken to protect people in both the private and social rented sectors, which has provided the security of a home for thousands of households throughout England and Wales.
I am encouraged that evictions will not be enforced until 31 March at the earliest, except in the most egregious cases. On top of this, emergency legislation and the six-month suspension of evictions and court proceedings helped guard against the effects of coronavirus for renters and landlords during the summer. The notice period for evictions has also been extended to six months to provide further certainty for renters, excepting serious cases such as anti-social behaviour and domestic abuse. It is good to see that the moratorium on commercial forfeitures for non-payment has been extended to the end of March 2021, helping provide certainty for businesses and employees and protect jobs in our communities.
Immediate support through the £500 million Hardship Fund has been provided to economically vulnerable people struggling to pay council tax, with a further £670 million being provided in 2021-22. The £170m Covid Winter Grant Scheme has been introduced to support families, older people and children over the winter. Statutory Sick Pay is also being paid from day one of being sick, rather than day four. An additional £9.3 billion has also been put into the welfare system this year, further protecting those that are struggling. I am glad that efforts across the country have helped save lives and livelihoods, keep businesses running and assist those who are struggling the most. There is also £180 million in funding available this year through Discretionary Housing Payments for councils to support renters with housing costs.
It is very important that landlords and renters continue to work together to agree on affordable repayment plans, established with an understanding of the renter's circumstance and financial ability, and raise issues at the earliest opportunity to address any concerns.
I have been assured that the Government is prepared to take further measures as needed to protect tenants.
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