It’s too ambitious a task to analyse Grant Shapps’ social housing consultation paper in one post. I hope people will read it and make their comments forcefully to the government. But there are a few points I think are worth stressing.
1. Localism is a great dodge. It allows you to slide away from all difficult questions by saying you are just enabling the landlords and it will be down to councils and housing associations to decide for themselves how much the new powers are used. The paper has no predictions of how many of each type of new tenancy might be created in future and it avoids any substantive discussion of how ‘well off’ a tenant needs to become before they are evicted at the end of a short tenancy. So its a postcode lottery, what happens to you and your home depends entirely on an accident of geography and chance. Given that the stated justification for the policy is to give more opportunities to the 1.8m on waiting lists, it is astonishing that there is no estimate, however rough, of how many people might benefit from the policy over a period.
2. The proposed change to the homelessness duty guts the legislation as we have known it for 33 years. Local authorities will be able to discharge their duty to a homeless household by finding a private letting for the applicant, who can no longer refuse it, even though landlords will still have to offer ‘reasonable preference’ to vulnerable homeless households under their allocation policy. The paper complains that “those owed the duty can effectively insist on being provided with temporary accommodation until offered social housing” as if being in TA is some luxurious option. In fact, TA makes it almost impossible for people to work, frequent moves mean families do not settle and children are seriously disadvantaged. The average stay in TA is one year outside London and 3 years in London. No-one would suffer that if the private rented option was a reasonable one for them. People suffer it because social housing offers the only hope of a decent and secure home at an affordable rent to enable families to rebuild their lives in a settled home.
3. Some extraordinary claims are made – for example that the reforms will help overcrowded families. How exactly? There are no proposals to tackle underoccupation amongst existing tenants and zero existing large homes will be released to help the 260,000 overcrowded social tenants. Even more astonishing is the claim that the proposals will promote ‘strong and cohesive communities’ when the opposite is the almost certain outcome of a more rapid turnover of tenants with new tenants not being able to put down roots and become net contributors to their neighbourhoods.
4. The new ‘affordable rent’ tenure, or ‘flexible tenure’ as they now seem to prefer, is aimed to provide homes for the same people who might be offered social rent now. But it is open to the landlord to decide the rent, the length of tenancy and, within a broad framework, the terms. The paper at least is honest when it says this is “a significant first step towards those greater freedoms for social landlords.” How will people on waiting lists, homeless people or any other prospective tenant know what kind of tenancy they will receive, for how long and at what rent? Chaos awaits.
5. The paper has one traditional charlatan’s trick – if you can’t change the reality, change the way it is counted. One reason for the growth in waiting lists since 2002 was labour’s decision that they should be open to anyone to apply. As a result, waiting lists have become a more accurate count of not only the need for social rented housing but also the demand – and it is huge. Social housing is a popular option with many people and they want more of it. But in future councils will be able to dictate who qualifies to join the waiting lists, leaving it open to local political manipulation as was the case prior to 2002. And no doubt the government will claim that waiting lists have been slashed since they came into power.
6. And my 2 favourite hobby horses. First the claim that social housing is subsidised when everyone at CLG knows that council housing is running a surplus, including the cost of debt, which is likely to grow over the next few years. Even calling houisng association homes subsidised because they have capital grant is questionable – they make a large surplus in the long term. And secondly, the use of the term ‘lifetime tenancy’ as if it was a legal or technical term, is extremely irritating. This phrase was invented by those opposed to security of tenure to try to make it sound ridiculous. Security of tenure simply means that the tenancy is not time limited and the landlord has to have grounds for possession and to get a court order to repossess. Simple consumer protection.
‘Local decisions: a fairer future for social housing’ can be found at http://www.communities.gov.uk/documents/housing/pdf/1775577.pdf