Notice periods return to pre-Covid levels from October 1 - what should landlords know?
In early September, the government confirmed that notice periods for evictions in England will return to pre-pandemic levels on October 1, as planned.
At the same time, it warned that they could be lengthened once more if the Covid crisis were to worsen again this autumn and winter.
As a result of the pandemic and the introduction of the emergency Coronavirus Act 2020, which came in 18 months ago, all notice periods were increased to six months for most grounds including section 21 and section 8 notices. Only in the most serious cases, such as anti-social behaviour, were there exemptions.
Following the ending of the eviction ban on June 1 2021, the required notice period landlords must give to tenants to start eviction proceedings fell to four months – again, except in the most serious of cases.
A statement from the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, since renamed the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities after the recent government reshuffle, said at the time of the announcement: “While these measures were appropriate at the height of the pandemic, these restrictions could only ever be temporary. Returning notice periods to their pre-Covid lengths from 1 October will allow landlords to repossess their property where necessary.”
“However, we intend to retain the power to implement these measures again in the case that the public health situation worsens and these measures are required again,” the statement added.
To aid this, the government has implemented a statutory instrument in Parliament to return notice periods to their pre-Covid terms, but has also inserted a clause that will allow them to be reinstated up until March 25 2022 ‘should the future public health situation warrant a further extension’.
What does this mean for landlords?
In theory, the changes should make it easier for landlords to regain possession of their home should this be required, although there are still likely to be delays and backlogs in the courts thanks to the long months of Covid-enforced closures.
The courts have only been properly hearing cases again for a few months, and there is a huge backlog to be worked through across the country.
The government and trade bodies are still pushing mediation as a better option, particularly in those cases where rental arrears have built up through no fault of the tenant.
But in some cases, eviction will still be a necessary evil for landlords for a host of reasons and the return to pre-Covid notice period lengths should provide a boost.
David Smith, partner at JMW Solicitors, said the return to pre-Covid notice period will be welcome news to landlords ‘in cases where some tenants have exploited the opportunity to stay put in the knowledge that landlords will be unable to take swift action to evict them’.
“The announcement of the end of extended notice periods will hopefully encourage parties to negotiate and resolve matters as otherwise Court action will be available to landlords at a much earlier stage in the dispute,” he added.
But he warned landlords to not serve section 21 notices for the rest of this month as the notice period will be much reduced from October 1.
“Likewise, notices for rent arrears which are below the threshold allowing for shorter notice periods should also be held back until after 1 October,” he added. “The other option is to serve notices now but with the intention of serving a replacement notice after 1 October.”
He went on: “As against this good news it is worth noting that possession fees will also be increasing shortly, alongside most other court fees, so the cost of proceedings will increase slightly.”
Isobel Thomson, chief executive of safeagent (formerly NALS), also welcomed the clarity provided by government regarding notice periods and ‘the return to a reasonable and fair timescale for landlords to be able to obtain possession of their property where appropriate’.
She said: “We feel that recognition should be given to the proven ability of landlords, tenants and agents who during the pandemic have worked together to maintain tenancies.
“When notice periods return to pre-Covid levels we don’t believe there will be any less appetite to sustain those tenancies or that we’ll see a sudden spike in evictions.”
Are landlords in a race against time?
Some landlords are looking to sell some or all of their portfolio and they need to regain possession swiftly to make this so, while other landlords may need to get rid of a problem tenant or one in severe rent arrears who shows no willingness to co-operate.
But with rumours continuing to swirl about the scrapping of section 21 notices, do landlords need to act fast before eviction becomes even harder – particularly with the current backlogs at the courts?
While there has been no definitive date from the government yet, it has previously stated that a white paper on rental reform will be released this autumn, which will inform the planned Renters’ Reform Bill before it reaches Parliament.
Announcements are expected at next week’s Conservative Party Conference, where we should find out more about the plans for rental reform, which have the abolition of section 21 – popular among the public and MPs but largely hated by landlords and landlord groups – and the introduction of lifetime deposits for tenants at their very core.
Even if the scrapping of section 21 is confirmed in the white paper and then the Bill, it will still be some time before the legislation is introduced (it seems unlikely before the second half of 2022, at this rate). But the direction of travel does seem pretty concrete, and landlords would be wise to start working with their letting agents to consider alternatives that don’t require eviction.
This could include mediation, selling with sitting tenants or reconsidering plans to sell, or creating special arrangements with tenants who have been badly hit by Covid but may now be returning to work to start paying back the rental arrears they have accrued.
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