As Scotland cautiously enters the first phase in the easing of lockdown restrictions, here we summarise developments pertinent to the country's private rented sector that have taken place over the past 10 weeks.

Tenancy Deposit Protection

We start with our own area of expertise , where there has in fact been no change during lockdown.

At the start of lockdown we addressed some frequently asked questions in a previous blog post, where the over-riding theme was "business as usual" - deposits remain protected, new deposits can be protected and there are no delays on either repayments or dispute decisions.

The only minor change, which we have highlighted previously, is that we encourage scheme users to avoid contacting us via post where possible at this time due to office access being limited. We strongly recommend uploading dispute evidence via our online portal, and making payments online or via the telephone rather than sending cheques - our team are on the other end of the phone to help guide you through these processes. On that note we have maintained our speedy call answering and prompt email response times throughout lockdown while working remotely.

Since the start of the crisis, SafeDeposits Scotland has proactively been in contact with the Scottish Government. We have shared queries raised by landlords and letting agents about, for example, the knock-on effect of lockdown on statutory timelines. The advice that we have received in response to date is that there is no change to timelines or any other area of regulations relating to tenancy deposit protection.

Private Rent Sector Landlord COVID-19 Loan Scheme

Alongside the health risk posed by the spread of COVID-19, many households across Scotland have had to worry about the financial implications that have resulted from lockdown. While some have been fortunate enough to continue working and others have been supported through furlough arrangements, there have nonetheless been job losses and regular incomes abruptly stopped as a result.

The ability to pay rent has therefore become a concern for many tenants affected in this way. It is a worry for landlords too - in particular those who rely on rent payments to make mortgage repayments on the property, and indeed people who are not full-time landlords and may themselves have lost their job as a result of the crisis.

To address the issue of rent payment difficulties the Scottish Government in early May introduced the Private Rent Sector Landlord COVID-19 Loan Scheme - a £5 million fund offering interest-free loans to landlords whose tenants are having difficulty paying rent as a result of the crisis.

The scheme has been designed to support landlords - not classified as businesses and with five or less properties to rent - with up to 100% of lost rental income for a single property, where the tenant has been unable to pay rent due to COVID-19.

While we refer to mortgage repayments above, it should be noted that landlords who are having difficulty with mortgage repayments on a rental property should - in the first instance - speak to their lender about the possibility of a mortgage repayment holiday before applying for this new loan. When applying for this loan landlords are required to confirm they understand the terms of the Coronavirus (Scotland) Act, on which more information can be found below.

Further information on the loan scheme can be found here.

Coronavirus (Scotland) Act

In response to the COVID-19 crisis, emergency legislation has been introduced by the Scottish Government and passed by the Scottish Parliament. To date there have been two Acts introduced - the Coronavirus (Scotland) Act 2020 and Coronavirus (Scotland) (No.2) Act 2020. Both contain measures relevant to those living and working within the private rented sector.

One of the main measures in the first Act is centred on preventing evictions. The provisions with schedule 1 of the Act temporarily extend the notice period before the process for ending a tenancy can begin for up to six months. The extended notice periods are either for six months or in certain cases three months, for example on tenant conduct grounds relating to antisocial or criminal behaviour, or in instances where a landlord or their close family member is looking to move back into the property.

The second Act outlines that during the pandemic, a landlord ending a tenancy agreement because of rent arrears must take certain actions to support their tenant before an order of possession is granted. At the time of writing the nature of these actions is to be confirmed. Elsewhere the Act introduces extended council tax exemption periods for certain vacant property groups that are unoccupied on or after 17th March 2020 for reasons relating to COVID-19.

Route Map

Last week Scotland entered the first stage in the Scottish Government's four-phase route map out of lockdown, which includes people from two households being able to meet two metres apart outdoors and the resumption of some non-contact sports such as golf.

For the private rented sector there is not yet a clear indication of when and how the industry can return to normal, or something resembling normal, and at this time letting agents are still required to be closed until further notice.

As stated by ARLA Propertymark however, the Government has advised that such businesses are permitted to prepare staff and premises for the relaxation of restrictions - for example checking offices for readiness and making changes to implement safe operating procedures, such as installing protective screens and distance markings.

Further Information and Help

This is an ever-evolving situation with multiple layers and this blog is merely a summary of some of the key developments in recent weeks. Further, more detailed information, can be found via a variety of specialist sources. Below we highlight some of these organisations.

Scottish Association of Landlords (SAL): SAL is a dedicated national organisation that represents landlords throughout Scotland and its Council of Letting Agents (CLA) represents letting agents. During the crisis SAL has lobbied and campaigned on behalf of landlords, and has issued advice to landlords on how best to help tenants at this difficult time. Visit their website for up to date news and information.

ARLA Propertymark: ARLA Propertymark is a professional and regulatory body which promotes the highest standards of professionalism and integrity among those working in the property industry. Their website is frequently updated with news and information on developments that affect letting agents and their clients in Scotland and the rest of the UK.

Citizens Advice Scotland: Citizens Advice Bureaux across Scotland have continued to support members of the public - on a remote basis - throughout the pandemic. Their website contains a wealth of information on COVID-19 related subjects, and you can also find the contact details for your nearest bureau.

Scottish Mediation: Scottish Mediation seeks to promote a wider understanding of the appropriate use of mediation in conflict management and prevention. In response to the pandemic they have introduced a COVID-19 Mediation Service, specifically for those who find themselves in conflict with another person or group arising from COVID-19 related social distancing or self isolation.

Under One Roof: Under One Roof offers impartial advice on repairs and maintenance for flat owners in Scotland. They have published useful Coronavirus Guidance online, to help guide flat owners and dwellers on matters such as cleaning and repair during lockdown.

Scottish Government: The Government's website contains extensive information on all subjects relating to COVID-19, including the business support, legislation and route map mentioned within this blog post.