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A welcome shift but Shapps still needs his snoopers

Red Brick’s first ever post was on security of tenure.  And we have argued consistently since that reducing security of tenure would be bad for individuals, bad for communities and bad for social housing.
The government has now relented and moderated some of its worst proposals.  Grant Shapps, in a letter to consultees, has ‘caved in’ and accepted a significant amendment to his draft ‘direction’ on tenure.  Blogger Jules Birch has reported on the slalom that has been Grant Shapps’ opinion on this in recent times, wavering about under pressure from both sides.  In his letter, Shapps puts the change down to ‘concerns expressed during debate on the tenure reform provisions of the Localism Bill at Lords committee’.  Step forward those Lords, if this goes on I might have to amend my unicameral views.  And well done to the Labour opposition and to those elements of the housing lobby who have fought for the interests of tenants rather than landlords on this one.  No accolades seem to be deserved by the Liberals, who have been particularly supine on security despite their long-term party policies.
It is important however to put Shapps’ retreat into perspective.  A skirmish has been won but not a battle let alone a war.  Instead of a minimum term of 2 years for general needs housing, the policy will in future be that a normal tenancy term will be 5 years, but landlords will still be able to offer a 2 year tenancy ‘in exceptional circumstances’ as long as they set out what that means in their tenancy policy.  Some landlords will no doubt try to adopt an elastic definition of ‘exceptional’.
It should be said clearly that the policy is still wrong, just less wrong than it was.  At the end of 5 years, tenants will still be at the mercy of a landlord assessment of whether they should keep their home, without being able to make their case to a court.  That is where the immorality lies.  It gives arbitrary bureaucratic power to people who are often unaccountable, some of whom are very judgemental about tenants and which ones they like (deserving) and don’t like (undeserving).  And if virtually all tenancies are renewed, as some argue, what a waste of time and effort it will be.  Linked to Shapps wanting to means test all tenants to find out which ones have a high salary so he can charge them more rent, an army of people will be needed to go round checking everyone’s
income and resources and assessing everyone’s suitability to continue as a tenant.  Shapps will still need his Snoopers.
This victory should encourage more campaigning over the summer.  In particular, the government looks wobbly on the total benefit cap aspect of the welfare reform bill.
Their Lordships have more good work to do.

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Making the Most of Community Led Planning

By guest blogger Monimbo.
Inside Housing carries a story about a new guide to Making the Most of Community Led Planning, promoted by the DCLG and created by two pressure groups working in rural areas and in market towns. Without disparaging the work of ACRE and Action for Market Towns, with their rural focus it is perhaps not surprising that the groups involved in this exercise seem to be solely from County Council areas. There is no representation from inner city areas or, indeed, outer ones.  The guide carries the endorsement of the minister for decentralisation, Greg Clark, with no mention of its rural bias, and yet it was part financed from the DCLG’s empowerment fund.
The minister hails the guide as helping ‘local people’ exercise the right to prepare a ‘neighbourhood plan’ under the Localism Bill.  It strikes me that the guide is an unintentional reminder of how vacuous such plans may turn out to be.  There is only the
vaguest discussion of resources, delicate issues like building more local housing are touched on only briefly, and there appear to be very few examples of what neighbourhood plans can actually achieve – surprising given that more than 4,000 community led plans are apparently already in existence.
One gets the impression that neighbourhood plans are intended to be about minor issues that can be readily tackled by parish councils. I looked eagerly, but in vain, for an example of a community that championed the need for more rural housing, overcame local opposition and built some affordable homes using a local housing association. Perhaps they exist – but they are not mentioned here.
You will also look in vain in the guide for any mention of ethnic minorities. There are several references to community plans being ‘inclusive’, but no examples of what this means. As we know, in many rural areas there are marginalised communities who might well miss out on this sort of ‘community led’ planning if it fails to involve them.  For example, many of the issues about the housing of migrant workers have cropped up in rural authorities like Breckland in Norfolk and Kerrier in Cornwall, where migrants provide the labour for the ‘pick, pack and pluck’ trades. Is their housing an issue which might be examined in community led plans, or is it better brushed under the carpet?
Community led planning is a good idea, and I would be surprised if many of the projects championed by ACRE and AMT aren’t good examples of rural communities getting things done. But there are dangers if this becomes the exclusive vision for neighbourhood planning, and more widely for the government’s ambition (repeated by Greg Clark) of replacing ‘big state’ with the ‘big society’.  There are some advantages to the state: it is open to lobbying, it is governed by equality laws, it has elected councillors and – even in troubled times – it has real resources and statutory powers to use them. If neighbourhood plans are to work properly, they must be about delivering real change in real communities where all groups are involved. And this must include challenging inner city areas, neglected outer estates, and hard-to-reach groups in both.
Neighbourhood plans that merely sustain a comforting image of rural and small-town life will not fit the bill.

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Tenants' complaints: another hurdle to jump

On Friday the chief executives of the National Housing Federation, TPAS and Shelter had a letter published in the Independent (go here and scroll down) concerning an aspect of the Localism Bill that has not so far attracted much attention: tenants’ complaints.
Specifically, the Bill’s new arrangements for making complaints to the Housing Ombudsman will prevent tenants from being able to complain directly: in future they will have to get a referral from an MP, councillor or a ‘designated tenant panel’.  The authors of the letter say this will be disempowering, costly and bureaucratic, causing delays and ‘red tape’.
Under current arrangements, tenants can only take a complaint to the Ombudsman if they have exhausted the landlords’ own complaints process, which can often take many months in itself.  They then have to go through the Ombudsman’s own filtering process (they decline requests to investigate complaints in many cases) and then wait for an investigation and report.  Many MPs and councillors are highly accessible to their constituents and no doubt would do the job as quickly and conscientiously as they can:
others are not, do not deal with correspondence effectively and sometimes do not even have ‘surgeries’ for tenants to attend.  We do not know what processes a ‘designated
tenant panel’ might adopt and there is a danger that they will not be very independent of the landlord.
Either a councillor or MP will just pass the complaint on, which is a complete waste of everyone’s time, or they will act as a filter of some kind, either refusing to pass it on for their own reasons or making their own enquiries, which will require the tenant to explain the matter all over again, including revealing their personal details.  Tenants may well feel that MPs and councillors are not always neutral when dealing with such matters, especially a complaint against the council as landlord*.
There can only be one motivation behind this process: to reduce the volume of complaints going through to the Ombudsman because it will be under-resourced for the job it should be doing.  But the procedure will put additional burdens on MPs and councillors that they are often not geared up to handle, and will undoubtedly act as a disincentive to tenants to take their complaint forward.
An effective complaints process is one mechanism for ensuring the accountability of landlords.  It is therefore encouraging that the NHF, as the landlords’ trade body, is opposing this change.  Good landlords welcome complaints, pursue them properly and seek to learn lessons from them.  There has already been a damaging reduction in regulation and independent inspection of service quality in the housing sector.  Making it harder for tenants to complain to the Ombudsman will make it easier for poor landlords to ignore their tenants.
*The Bill creates a unified service for investigating housing complaints, transferring
responsibility for council housing from the Local Government Ombudsman.

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Know any Lords?

The Opposition was defeated and the hand-wringers in the Liberal Democratic Party have done nothing yet.  So the Localism Bill (see here and here and here) went through the House of Commons and now heads off to the House of Lords.  There it will meet a few people who know a lot about housing, and it is time for them to take a firm stand.
There is encouragement from what a few LibDem MPs said during the second reading debate that a concerted attempt to remove or at least dilute some of the housing aspects of Bill could have some success. 
For example,

  • LibDem MP Annette Brooke said that she wanted “to put on record my concern about the two-year tenancies…… The Liberal Democrats want this issue to be revisited in the House of Lords.  It is incredibly important to get it right….. as we pass this Bill to the other place, we do so with a lot of questions.”
  • President of the LibDems Simon Hughes MP said he was “very supportive of the comments of my hon. Friend Annette Brooke, who expressed her concern not that the Government are not listening, but that they may need to go further in the House of Lords to accommodate the points made by those of us who for years have had a passionate concern for social housing and council housing.”
  • And another LibDem Dan Rogerson set out a principle that shows what the debate is all about: “The key to social housing is longer-term tenure, which gives families, and particularly those with young children, confidence that they have a home for their family for the future. That is why we need to focus on the fact that social housing is meant to be not for short-term crisis accommodation but for family homes…… I should like a great deal of reassurance in that regard from those on the Treasury Bench before I join the Government in the Division Lobby” (for Third Reading).

So now is the time, if you know any members of the House of Lords, to get writing and lobbying to make sure that this nasty Bill doesn’t come back to the Commons without some substantial amendment. 
Combining those that take the Labour Whip, concerned LibDem Peers and the many cross-benchers who take an interested in housing, there are enough votes to force the government into change.
Despite my many reservations about the House of Lords, forcing changes to the Bill would not be an undemocratic step.  None of the Bill’s housing policies appeared in the Lib Dem Manifesto.  Apart from housing mobility, none appeared in the Conservative Manifesto, which promised to “respect the tenures and rents of social housing tenants”.  Apart from HRA reform and empty homes, none made it into the coalition agreement.  This Bill is borne of thoroughly undemocratic practice: the British people were not told any of it at the Election and should not have to put up with it now.

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Localism Bill holes homelessness safety net

<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.

Most people will never get to know about the work that many MPs put in, in quality and in quantity.  But anyone following the Committee stage of the Localism Bill would be impressed by the hard graft put in by the key members of the Labour opposition, their analysis of the issues and their knowledge of the subjects under discussion. 

The Bill covers such a wide range of topics and working out the ramifications of over 200 specific clauses and more than 20 schedules is a herculean task.  As of 10 March there had been 24 sittings of the Bill Committee, and the leading Labour members have attended just about all of them, making dozens of amendments and speeches.    

I have been following the debate on the homelessness sections of the Bill – see my previous post for more background here.  The government’s policy of allowing councils to discharge their homelessness duty by obtaining a private rented sector letting for the applicant drives a coach and horses through the homelessness safety net, legislation that is arguably one of the legs of the welfare state.  The whole debate can be read here

On 10 March Nick Raynsford made a powerful speech on this section of the Bill – unfortunately to no avail.  It traces the history of the homelessness legislation, how the Tories have always opposed it, and how the Lib Dems have always supported it – until now.  Raynsford was of course heavily involved in achieving the passage of the original homelessness legislation in 1977.  Here are a few highlights from what he said.

“Homeless people are not different from other people. There are some who have special problems, but the vast majority of homeless people are those who have fallen on difficult times. They may have lost their home through a variety of different circumstances, and they are exposed to all the horrors of not having a home. Above all, they need help and support to get back on their feet and to move back into the mainstream and normal life.

“That is what brought me into working in housing in the late 1960s. I was of the generation that saw “Cathy Come Home” and was horrified by the revelation in that powerful programme of just how badly we as a society treated homeless people in the 1960s. It was a revelation. I was not aware that old workhouses were still being used as accommodation, or that families were routinely split up and husbands were not allowed to go into accommodation for homeless families—only the women and children could go in, and the husbands were split away. There was no proper safeguard for homeless families or people. That led me not only to work in the voluntary housing sector, but to campaign in the 1970s for a law that would give hope and security to homeless people and help the process that I have just described.

“That process involved helping homeless people through the difficulty and back into the mainstream of society, rather than allowing them to be stigmatised, marginalised and punished, as was the case before the Housing (Homeless Persons) Act 1977. That Act was very important, and I helped Stephen Ross, the Liberal MP for the Isle of Wight, who bravely undertook to promote that as a private Member’s Bill in 1976, a time when he could have easily adopted other causes that might have been more popular in his constituency. I know from talking to him at the time that he was determined to do something hugely important for society, not just take on something that would be popular and help him to win a marginal seat in the ensuing general election, so I pay huge tribute to him. He did so with the support of the then Labour Government, which had a wafer-thin majority, so Liberal support was important. The two parties worked together, and that legislation was the product of Labour and Liberals working together to give rights to homeless people.

“I am sorry to say that the Conservative party at the time opposed that legislation. It voted against it and fought it literally clause by clause through this House. However, it got onto the statute book and made a difference. It changed attitudes towards the homeless, and it ensured that provision for homeless people was brought into the mainstream of housing provision, rather than being something on the margins that separated them from the rest of society. That continued throughout the 1980s, until in 1996 a Conservative Government sought to weaken the safeguards for homeless people. In Opposition, we in the Labour party fought that unsuccessfully, supported by the Liberal party—I think they were the Liberal Democrats by then—who were absolutely at one with us in defending the 1977 Act against the Tory Government’s attempt to weaken it. I welcomed that support.

“In 2000-01, when I was Minister for Housing and Planning, I had the privilege of introducing the Homes Bill, which reinstated the principal safeguards of the 1977 Act which had been weakened by the 1996 legislation, and also introduced the concept of local authorities developing homelessness prevention strategies. That Bill did not reach the statute books immediately—it fell because of the 2001 general election—but it was re-introduced by my successor immediately after that election, when I had moved to another responsibility, and made it on to the statute book. That was passed by a Labour Government with the support of the Liberal Democrats. In fact, I well remember the right hon. Member for Bath (Mr Foster), who led the Opposition for the Liberal Democrats in the Committee that discussed the Homes Bill in the run-up to the 2001 general election. He was pressing us to go further, rather than saying we should weaken in any way our commitment to homeless people.

“This is what really saddens me about what is happening now, because we are seeing here a coalition of Conservatives and Liberal Democrats weakening a piece of legislation that should be a proud monument to parties working together to advance the prospects of disadvantaged people and help those in difficult circumstances to get  back on their feet. I am delighted that the hon. Member for St Austell and Newquay has—to a degree—maintained the honourable tradition of his party in seeking to safeguard the position of homeless people. I hope when on Report he will continue to do so with a commitment to voting for his views, rather than simply articulating them.

“I say to this Committee, and to all Members of this House, that this is a retrograde step. This is weakening the safeguards for homeless people…. it will expose more people to a position where they are subject to a dependence on benefits; where the work incentives are to very large degree taken away by punitive rates of taxation because of the withdrawal of benefits; and where they do not have the security to be able to rebuild their lives because they live in insecure lettings where they cannot be certain they can stay from one year to the next and continue to occupy it as their home, providing they pay the rent and meet the tenancy obligations. This is a sad, retrograde step, and I believe that the House will ultimately regret it and will come to realise that if it passes the clause, and the Bill, it will have made a serious mistake.”

Localism Bill Clause 124 3 March 2011

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Localism Bill Committee debates social housing clauses

<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.

This week the House of Commons Committee examining the Localism Bill moved on to Part 6 of the Bill, the part dealing with social housing.  Over the coming few sessions, the Committee will look at the various government proposals for homelessness and allocations, social housing tenancies, mobility, regulation, HRA reform, complaints and the Ombudsmen function.  It is a huge agenda of change, much of it controversial.

In the first debate on this part, Shadow Housing Minister Alison Seabeck set out some general comments on the government’s approach and that of the Labour opposition, extracts are included below. 

Readers interested in the detail of the Bill and the Parties’ stances on the issues coming up can follow the full debate clause by clause through the ‘They Work for You’ website.  Start the housing section of the Localism Bill here.   

The Committee has a coalition majority and its members (all parties) currently are:  

Jack DromeyDavid WardBob NeillFiona BruceHenry SmithGavin BarwellIan MearnsBrandon LewisNick RaynsfordJames MorrisAndrew StunellJohn Howell,  Eric OllerenshawHeidi AlexanderIain StewartSiobhain McDonaghBill WigginAlison SeabeckNicholas DakinStephen GilbertJonathan ReynoldsJulie ElliottGreg ClarkDavid SimpsonAlun CairnsBarbara Keeley

Extracts from speech of Alison Seabeck MP on 1 March 2011

“Social housing is an integral part of the housing mix in this country. It provides secure and affordable accommodation for low-income families, for pensioners and for people who are unable to work or who cannot find a job and are vulnerable. Historically, it has been a safety net ensuring that the most disadvantaged in our community, as well as those in housing need for a very broad range of reasons, retained the human right to a roof over their head. Housing is a human right that was upheld by the Supreme Court in a ruling on Manchester City Council v. Pinnock, and more recently in the case of Hounslow LBC v. Powell, in which the judges who heard the appeal talked about “respecting a person’s home”.

“Most importantly, social housing—I would prefer not to label it in that way—forms an essential part of many communities. They are homes, sometimes occupied by successive generations of the same family, which make up communities. Communities come in all shapes and sizes, but even those that may be seen by the outside world as difficult areas have a sense of strong community.

“The most recent statistics from the Department for Communities and Local Government show that 17% of households in England live in social rented housing; for pensioner households, the figure rises to more than a fifth. About a quarter of ethnic minority households live in social housing. The median household income in 2007-08 in social housing was just £10,900 a year. Those living in social housing are not in a land of milk and honey, as is sometimes suggested. Many are vulnerable, many are poor and any changes to the social housing system need to be approached carefully and with sensitivity. If only the Government had taken such an approach.

“We know that the proposals in the Bill did not feature in manifestos; they were either opposed or denied by the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats. The Miniuster (Andrew Stunell) repeatedly put his name to early-day motions in the previous Parliament on matters which now fall within his portfolio. We want to understand at which point he changed his mind on the importance of security of tenure and affordability. Was it before or after he was appointed to a position within a Government led by a Tory Prime Minister?

“We seek to amend the Government’s proposals in order to increase protections, defend the long-held rights of those in social housing and those who expect to move into social housing, and provide safeguards for homeless families within the framework of the Bill.”