John said real rent controls are “urgent” in the Highlands and Islands, where rents are rising faster than in any other part of Scotland and are now £23 per month higher than the national average.
According to estate agents Your Move, the average monthly rent in the region was £569 in November 2015, second only to Edinburgh and Lothians at £635; the average Scottish rent was £546. Rents in the Highlands and Islands rose by 5.8% in the year to November 2015; the next fastest-growing region was South at 3.1%.
John’s call came as the Government’s Private Housing (Tenancies) Bill, which provides for the reintroduction of rent controls, received its first debate and vote in the Scottish Parliament. MSPs voted overwhelmingly, 88 votes to 13, to endorse the principles of the Bill after it was debated on Thursday 21 January.
John was one of the first MSPs to join the Living Rent Campaign to press for rent controls, scrapped by Margaret Thatcher’s administration in 1988. Campaigners were jubilant when Nicola Sturgeon announced last year that she would reintroduce controls, but current Scottish Government proposal would only limit rent rises during existing tenancies.
John warned that this “giant loophole” would leave landlords free to increase rents as much as they wanted for new tenants, and may even encourage landlords to evict existing tenants in order to sidestep rent controls. He said:
“The cost of renting a home in the Highlands and Islands is racing ahead of the rest of the country, driven by buy-to-let and holiday-home speculators for whom houses are first and foremost investments, not homes.
“The result is greater poverty, greater depopulation, and more desperate tenants forced to accept poor-quality homes or unscrupulous landlords.
“Nowhere is the case for rent controls more urgent.
“But the Government’s first draft would only control increases in rent for existing tenants – landlords could still hike up the rent as much as they want for new tenants.
“Given that the majority of rent increases do happen in between tenancies, this version of rent control would do little to rein in the soaring cost of keeping a roof over your head.
“Even worse, applying it to existing tenants but not new ones would be a big incentive for landlords to kick out their current tenants so they could sidestep the rent control.
“I’m delighted that the Government has brought forward this Bill to improve tenants’ rights, a huge victory for the Living Rent Campaign and the many others who have worked for it. It could be a major step in the direction of reclaiming our houses as homes for people, not just financial investment opportunities.
“But if this this giant loophole isn’t closed as the Bill moves forward, it could turn into a huge missed opportunity.”
John also called on the Government to make rent controls reflect the quality of housing, incentivising landlords to make repairs and improve energy efficiency, and to include a hardship clause in eviction rules so that eviction orders could be delayed for tenants who are dealing with circumstances such as pregnancy, illness, bereavement or recent unemployment. He said:
“We need to tackle the poor quality of much of our housing as well as the raw cost. According to Government figures, almost half of tenants across the Highlands and Islands live in fuel poverty, a quarter of private rented homes are “lacking modern facilities”, and 13% are “below tolerable standard” – more than twice the Scottish average.
“As is done in the Netherlands, maximum rents should be lowered for homes that fail housing quality standards, have poor energy efficiency or are awaiting repairs, giving landlords a much-needed financial incentive to make improvements.
“The present version of the Bill gives a tribunal no discretion at all in issuing eviction orders in some situations, such as when there are rent arrears. Tenancies aren’t like any other business deal – people’s homes are at stake – so we need more flexibility and compassion for difficult situations. The Bill should include a ‘hardship clause’, allowing the tribunal to postpone an eviction to allow tenants facing difficulties time to arrange a repayment schedule, or to find a new home.”