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What the LibDems should do next on housing

One of the tragedies of the last Election and the coming of the coalition has been the way the LibDems have felt it necessary to stand by every government policy even if it wasn’t in the coalition agreement and even if it totally contradicted what the Party said before. 
So previously decent people like Andrew Stunell, who took on a Ministerial role at Communities and Local Government, and Steve Webb, who did the same at Work and Pensions, have frequently had to defend the indefensible.  Sometimes, it must be said, they have done it with the fervour of converts. 
Collective responsibility in government makes it inevitable that people argue for, and support in public, policies that they privately disagree with – you only have to read any political diary to see this happen again and again.  With a coalition you would expect people to show more consistency with their previous statements in opposition, and for more disagreement on policy to be expressed publicly.  That surely is the only way that the junior partner in a coalition can preserve their separate identity and their integrity.
The conventional wisdom is that the local Election results in England tell us that the electorate has punished the LibDems for breaking promises made at the Election.  I think the electorate are also saying that if we are going to vote for Tory policies we might as well vote for the real deal and not the pretend ones.  That’s why a share of the LibDem vote seems to have gone Tory, bolstering their position. 
The LibDems are the human shield, but the Tories are still the real enemy.  A collapse in the LibDem vote will not help Labour to win the next Election, especially if a lot of LibDem voters get a taste for voting Tory instead. 
Realistically, the LibDems are stuck with the coalition but they can and should assert their own identity more vigorously and contradict the Tories more openly.  That’s where housing comes in.
It was depressing to watch LibDem members voting with the Tory Whip on the Bill Committees looking at both the CLG’s Localism Bill and DWP’s Welfare Reform Bill.  If they had combined with Labour on specific amendments, they could have forced a rethink on some of the crazier and more damaging policies – policies that were not in the LibDem Manifesto or the coalition agreement. 
If those opportunities have now passed, there will be others in future.  It would do the LibDems a lot of good to rebel against items in the Welfare Reform Bill such as the total benefit cap, the underoccupation penalty, the linking of housing benefit to CPI rather than RPI and so on.  When the Localism Bill goes through its next stages, LibDems could vote against 2 year tenancies and 80% market rents and they could tell the government that they will vote against the Bill as a whole unless funding is switched into social rented housing rather than the So-Called Affordable Rent product.  None of these actions would bring the coalition down but they would in my view force the government to backtrack on some of their more unpleasant policies.  And the LibDems might get some credit, even on Red Brick.
I suspect secretly many LibDems would quite like the chance to stick two fingers up to Pickles and Shapps and to Duncan Smith, the real villains.  But in the cold light of the election results, such enjoyment may also the only route back to a respectable share of the vote.

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An unfair future for social housing

<strong><span class="has-inline-color has-accent-color">Steve Hilditch</span></strong>
Steve Hilditch

Editor and Founder of Red Brick. Former Head of Policy for Shelter. Select Committee Advisor for Housing and Homelessness. Drafted the first London Mayor’s Housing Strategy under Ken Livingstone.

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

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Social housing ‘reform’: less Localism and more Localis

<strong><span class="has-inline-color has-accent-color">Steve Hilditch</span></strong>
Steve Hilditch

Editor and Founder of Red Brick. Former Head of Policy for Shelter. Select Committee Advisor for Housing and Homelessness. Drafted the first London Mayor’s Housing Strategy under Ken Livingstone.

There is a lot in common between the policies on social housing announced today by Grant Shapps.  None of the policies appeared in the Lib Dem Manifesto.  Apart from better mobility, none appeared in the Conservative Manifesto, which promised to “respect the tenures and rents of social housing tenants”.  Apart from the HRA reform and empty homes, none made it into the coalition agreement.  The common thread is that they have all been thoroughly undemocratically arrived at and the British people were not told any of it at the Election.

The truth is that these policies have all been developed in the back channels of the Conservative Party.  One document recommended virtually all the policies now adopted by the coalition.  A Localis pamphlet written by the Leader of Hammersmith and Fulham Council, Stephen Greenhalgh, and John Moss, in 2009, called ‘Principles for Social Housing Reform’, proposed ending security of tenure, raising rents to market levels, and removing rights from homeless people.  There is only one serious departure – Greenhalgh and Moss accepted that there would have to be a commensurate increase in housing benefit payments to enable rents to rise so high – and the government hasn’t taken that one on board.

Dave Hill in his London blog traces the contact between Greenhalgh and the Tory front bench.  The more they met, and the more the front bench distanced themselves in public from the more extreme policies, the more committed they seem to have become to implementing them if they won.

There is little doubt that social housing has suffered from a great deception. 

We will have more about the new policies on Red Brick shortly, but the government’s consultation paper can be found here: http://www.communities.gov.uk/documents/housing/pdf/1775577.pdf

 The Tory back channel policies can be found here:  http://www.localis.org.uk/images/articles/Localis%20Principles%20for%20Social%20Housing%20Reform%20WEB.pdf

And Dave Hill’s history can be found here: http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/davehillblog/2009/oct/05/stephen-greenhalgh-housing-policy-timeline

Those that like to follow the personalities in housing as well as the policies will be interested to know that Greenhalgh and Moss specially acknowledge the help of “two extremely influential couples” – Julie Cowans, co-author of Visions for Social Housing, and David Cowans, Chief Executive of Places for People; and Nick Johnson, Chief Executive of H&F Homes and Kate Davies, Chief Executive of Notting Hill Housing Trust. 

 As Stan Laurel once said, “Here’s another nice mess I got you into.”