#AskCaCHE: Covid-19 & the private rented sector – Twitter Q&A summary

The Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC)’s Festival of Social Science is an annual celebration of the social sciences and their impact on the wellbeing and economy of society in the UK. This year the Festival, which takes place from 7 to 15 November, is a digital-first event; and, for our part, we hosted a series of Twitter Q&A sessions throughout the week. This blog provides a summary of the last session (9/11/20) in which Professor Alex Marsh, our Governance theme lead, answered your questions about his project on Covid-19 and the private rented sector, part of a wider programme of work on housing policy and the pandemic.


Q1. Could you tell us a little bit more about the aim of your research project?

Certainly. Our project is aiming to explore the processes of short-term policy making towards the private rented sector that began with the Covid crisis, how that policy process developed over the summer and how it continues to evolve. We are also gathering views on the likely longer term implications of the Crisis for the PRS. Our study is seeking to compare the policy processes over this period in England and Scotland.

Q2. Thanks. And what stage is the research at now?

At the moment we are just coming to the end of our first wave of interviews with key stakeholders in England and Scotland. We have started the process of analysing the data to bring out the key themes.

Q3. Can we/how do we use the pandemic to drive through the reforms needed to make the PRS more secure, affordable and better quality as standard (given that it’s such a mixed bag at the moment)?

This is a crucial question. Clearly prior to the Crisis policy in the PRS was moving, in different parts of the UK, at different speeds, towards recognising the need for more secure and affordable homes for tenants.

Policy in England had perhaps travelled least far at that point. Nonetheless a Reform Bill had been promised. My sense is that the experience of the crisis underlines the need for such reforms. But at the same time coping with the short-term demands of the crisis reduces the Government’s capacity to do the detailed policy development work to deliver a major reform successfully. So it is a question of keeping assembling the evidence and making the case.

Experiences during the crisis are delivering ample evidence about problematic living conditions in parts of the PRS and it has graphically underlined weaknesses and inadequacies in mechanisms of financial support. At the same time, it has demonstrated that many tenants are exposed to serious structural risks and safety nets need to be able to protect against that.

In the current context arguments that falling into arrears represents a failure of individual responsibility, rather than the consequence of systemic shocks, are hard to sustain. This is, in principle, fertile ground for making the case. But it needs to be made concertedly.

I think, for England at least, the issue of capacity versus willingness is the one to disentangle.

If we think the willingness to pursue substantial reform is there but it has just been put on hold because of short-term urgent demands on government then that’s one take on the situation. The implication would be that reformers who keep patiently making the case will be pushing at a (semi?)open door.

But if the crisis is a pretext for punting fundamental reform into the long grass then perhaps it requires a more forthright statement of the problem and why solutions are needed. There have been attempts to frame the issues in terms of impacts on health and wellbeing and thinking more systemically about consequences of (in)action. That feels like a fruitful route to getting at the urgency, and broad ramifications, of the issues facing PRS tenants.

For what it’s worth, I’d start from the presumption that the issue is capacity rather than unwillingness. Nonetheless the case for change doesn’t make itself. So the efforts to make the case need to continue.

Q4. There are anecdotes of landlords moving houses out of short-term lets and into ‘traditional’ PRS. And of tenants tending to stay longer in houses than they did pre-Covid. Anything systematic here?

We’re not looking into this systematically. Clearly there is already a small literature, much of it produced by human geographers, on the impacts of the growth of short-term lets (AirBnB etc) on neighbourhoods. I’ve seen one or two talks recently that have tried to start exploring the story of that phenomenon going into reverse.

Q5. In the short term we have actually seen some positive impact. LLs looking for help to sustain tenancies & find long term tenants. LHA uplift & collapse of Air BnB has helped. But the longer term is more worrying. What opportunities do you think might exist now to work with more good landlords to move people out of homelessness? What ideas do you have on how we might reach them and engage them?

I think that is right. I agree the crisis has also had some positives. The increased levels of communication & cooperation (in relation to LLs, but also between various organisations representing landlords & tenants) to come up with short-term solutions is one.

But also, it has indirectly, but graphically, demonstrated the substantial impact of some of the policy directions that were being pursued coming in to the crisis (e.g. the impact on affordability of allowing the LHA to fall below the 30th percentile).

We could argue that in the current context arguments about the advantages of various types of PRS leasing schemes, that offer landlords a more predictable income stream and risks are shared differently, might gain more traction.

On the specific point about communication, in a report we recently published on PRS compliance we suggested that there might be a Covid dividend here. LAs that struggle to bring landlords together for training events etc., particularly in rural areas where distance is an issue, are now used to engaging remotely and asynchronously (as we all are!). So there may well be opportunities, and new enthusiasm, to explore different ways of keeping the conversation with landlords going.

Q6. The #ESRCFestival is a celebration of the social sciences and their impact on the wellbeing and economy of society in the UK – how would you describe the value of your research?

Part of CaCHE’s mission is to bring evidence to bear on key housing challenges. That is about the substance of housing issues. But it is not only about the substance. It is also about understanding processes and considering how we can learn from them. Our project, and the broader programme of work it is part of, is trying to examine policy processes almost in real-time. Understanding those processes offers a chance to learn lessons and make the case for modifying those processes in future. Understanding the dynamics of the policy process as it is, opens up possibilities for moving to more effective policy making in future. We intend our findings to be of direct practical relevance and not simply academic value.

Q7. Lastly, when can we expect to see the results of the research?

The first interim report from the project is due to be published before the end of 2020.



Date: November 13, 2020 2:16 pm


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