The Labour Party unveils new plans to give tenants the right to keep a pet in their property.

Labour has today launched a new draft policy document on animal welfare: Animal Welfare For The Many, Not The Few.

The policy proposes (amongst other things) to give residential tenants the right to keep a pet in their rented property. It is unclear whether Labour proposes the new rules to apply only to short-term residential tenancies, such as Assured Shorthold Tenancies, or whether they are also intended to cover long-term residential leases, such as those granted for 99 or 125 years.

Some landlords are reluctant to allow tenants to keep pets due to a perceived added risk of damage being caused to the property (and the associated costs of repair and cleaning at the end of a tenancy), and the potential for the animals to cause a nuisance to other tenants.

Previous court cases and guidance published by the Office of Fair Trading have, however, found that a blanket ban on having pets in the property might be considered unlawful. This is because such a term may fall foul of legislation put in place to protect individuals from onerous or unfair terms in contracts (including tenancy agreements), such as the Consumer Rights Act 2015.

As a result, tenancy agreements often provide that tenants can keep pets in the property, but only if they obtain the landlord's consent. Arguably, such consent cannot be unreasonably withheld by the landlord, although in deciding when it is ‘reasonable’ to refuse consent, a landlord is entitled to have regard to all of the relevant circumstances. In other words, the starting position under a typical tenancy agreement is that a tenant cannot keep pets at the property, but they may be able to do so if the landlord agrees.

Labour’s proposed new policy would see a reversal of this starting position, whereby tenants would automatically be allowed to keep a pet in the property.

If, however, there is evidence that the animal is causing a nuisance, Labour envisages that the landlord would be entitled to seek the removal of the animal. Causing a ‘nuisance’ has a specific legal meaning. A nuisance is caused by a person doing something on their land, or within their property, which causes physical damage to neighbouring property, or which amounts to an unreasonable interference with the use or enjoyment of neighbouring property. Possible examples of a nuisance in this context might include: dog faeces in the communal areas of a block of flats; or loud barking, or other noises, coming from the animals, which can be heard from neighbouring properties. However, the precise scope of the landlord’s ability to remove a pet from a property under the new policy is yet to be fully clarified by Labour.

It is also unclear how the proposed new rules are intended to sit alongside other potential restrictions on keeping pets. For example, what would happen if the landlord of an Assured Shorthold Tenancy is required to allow pets, but where that landlord is himself a tenant under a long lease, the terms of which prevent him from keeping animals in the property? Any new legislation is unlikely to have retrospective effect, meaning that the ultimate landlord / freehold owner of the property would not have to grant consent for the pet.

There have also been cases where the keeping of animals is restricted for other reasons, such as for public planning policy reasons.

In one case which was heard before the First-Tier Tribunal Property Chamber, the property in question was subject to a planning condition preventing the keeping of cats. This was because of a protected species of lizard living in the garden of the property, which might be harmed by pet cats. A policy requiring landlords to allow tenants to keep cats would therefore have put the landlord in breach of this particular restriction.

Given the lack of detail at this stage, the property sector has responded cautiously to the new proposals. The Residential Landlords Association, for example, has queried whether landlords would charge higher deposits to reflect the increased risks of damage to a property where pets are allowed. They have also speculated whether insurance premiums would increase for landlords to reflect the greater risk of allowing pets to be kept as a default position. This could be particularly disadvantageous to tenants who do not intend to keep a pet, but who may be subject to the same increase in cost as a result of the new policy.

These issues will need to be clarified before landlords and tenants are able to understand the possible implications of the policy.