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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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Seabeck slates Tory housing segregation

A longer than normal post bringing edited extracts from the speech of Alison Seabeck MP, shadow Housing and Planning Minister on the housing parts of the Localism Bill, during the Bill’s second reading in the House of Commons.  You can read the full speech on the Labour Housing Group website or indeed the entire debate here  
Alison Seabeck said:
The Opposition cannot let these proposals go unchallenged. We will press for votes on our amendments flexible tenancies and security of tenure.
The Government’s proposals on housing and homelessness are deeply damaging, and none more so than the proposal to end security of tenure in social housing. That will create two classes of tenant in social housing. There will be great uncertainty, because there will be different lengths of tenure and different levels of rent, with little rational relationship between the two. There will be a divide between those who have been fortunate enough to get security of tenure in their social housing, and those who have been made to wait for too long and will be granted a tenancy for as little as two years. Tenants whose financial circumstances improve above an arbitrary level will potentially be told to pack up and move on.
As a result of the complexity of the system that is being brought forward, which will be a bureaucratic nightmare, a household in a three-bedroom house could pay less rent and have greater security than a household next door in a two-bedroom flat.
However, the message from the Government to all families in social housing is, “Get a better job and you will lose your home. Invite your partner to move in with you and start a family, and you will put your home at risk.” At a time when we want people to do their best to get on in life, and to build something better for themselves and their families, this is the wrong policy. Labour will stand up for people who strive and who put the hours in to better their lot. What will happen to people who fall foul of the new Tory rules and are told to leave their council or housing association home simply because they have worked hard if they subsequently lose their job or fall ill and are unable to work? What will their entitlement be then? They will go to the back of the queue and start all over again. Where is the incentive to work and where is the fairness?
To solve the housing crisis, the Government need to build more homes. Their policy seems to be aimed at trying to solve the shortage of social housing by allowing everyone a year or two in a social home before moving them on. Ministers seem to have failed to realise that to house people we need not to give them shorter tenancies but to build homes.
What will be the consequences of that policy of limiting social housing so that it is not available to those who work hard to build something for themselves, or to those who invest in their homes and communities? What will happen when we reduce estates to being areas that people pass through at their most vulnerable point and transitional communities of the most deprived? We will go back almost to the state of social housing in the first half of the last century, when access to it was limited by law to the “working classes”. That term was only ever defined once in legislation, in paragraph (12)(e) of the schedule to the Housing of the Working Classes Act 1903, as those “whose income in any case does not exceed an average of thirty shillings a week”.
In today’s money, that would be an annual income of just over £7,000. Mean as the Government are, I do not expect them to set a threshold as low as that, which would make them comparable with Tory Governments of the late 19th and early 20th century. However, the message that their change will send is the same now as it was then: that social housing is for the poor. It is to segregate people from other sections of society that are seen as doing better.
It has been more than 62 years since the House decided to accept that segregating social housing off for just one deprived section of society was entirely wrong. In that debate, Aneuring Bevan said—it is as true now as it was then—that it was
“entirely undesirable that on modern housing estates only one type of citizen should live…that from one sort of township should come one income group and from another sort of township another income group…if we are to enable citizens to lead a full life, if they are each to be aware of the problems of their neighbours, then they should be all drawn from the different sections of the community”.
Sixty years on, the idea that this country is stronger when its communities are more diverse, and that its society is more cohesive when it comprises of a broad and mixed swathe of people, is no longer supported by the Conservative party. Nor is it supported by the Liberal party, whose MPs did not oppose the measures in this Bill in Committee despite trying to raise their concerns by tabling amendments. They consistently withdrew those amendments without a vote. Just where is their fabled voice in government and their backbone? We still believe in mixed communities in social housing, underpinned by security of tenure, which the Bill targets so directly.
The framework published by the Department is quite clear that tenancies will be secure only for tenants who have a secure tenancy before 31 March 2012. Therefore, tenants with a secure tenancy will lose their security if their family grows and they need to move to a larger home, or if a person wishes to downsize to a smaller home and the only properties available for re-let are offered on a flexible tenancy.
The Bill is a retrograde step. Homeless applicants found to be in priority need and unintentionally homeless will no longer be able to draw on the security and stability of a social home with security of tenure. Instead, they will be placed directly into the private rented sector and if they refuse an offer, for whatever reason, the local authority will no longer have a duty to house them. They would then have almost nowhere to turn for help. It does not take much to realise the circumstances in which an offer might be unacceptable to an applicant. The accommodation might be too expensive, too far away from their child’s school or too close to an abusive ex-partner. It might also be damp, mouldy or unsafe—the list goes on. Key among all this is the insecurity that a private rented sector offer can sometimes bring. There was a very good article in Inside Housing this week, following a survey that clearly showed that a homeless person placed in the private rented sector was likely to face eviction very early, and to be turned around and around in a circle of homelessness.
The third biggest cause of statutory homelessness last year was the loss of an assured shorthold tenancy. As I said earlier, stability is vital in order to prevent what people have referred to as the revolving door of homelessness. With tenancies in the private rented sector being less stable and of a shorter duration, the risk of recurring homelessness is greater, so the need for stronger statutory protection increases.
If the Government are insistent that they wish to place homeless applicants directly into the private rented sector, it is only right for them to acknowledge the need to strengthen protections for the very predictable outcome of their choices. Evidence shows that homeless people housed in the private rented sector are more likely to be evicted.
Let me finish by saying that it is not just this Bill’s provisions that give cause for alarm, as changes to housing benefit will increase homelessness and rough sleeping. We have already seen homelessness increase by some 15% since this Government came into office. The Government’s consultation on statutory duties on local authorities has seen Tory councils like Hammermsith and Fulham viewing it as an opportunity to scale back their duties to homeless people, while Westminster council has been busy trying to ban soup kitchens.
Our new clauses and amendments are designed to defend mixed communities, to extend protections and advice to homeless people, to stand up for security and stability for low-income families and to prevent the segregation of those sections of our society that this Bill will surely deliver.

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Action on neighbours from hell ‘a chocolate teapot’?

<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.

Yet another attempt at populism by Mr Shapps with his announcement that ‘neighbours from hell’ will face faster eviction under ‘radical plans’ to introduce a new additional mandatory ground for possession against social tenants, under which tenants with a track record of anti-social behaviour can be evicted from their council or housing association property much more quickly.   At its core, the proposal means that being found guilty of housing related anti-social behaviour in one court will provide automatic grounds for eviction in the county court, removing the need to prove the incidents of anti-social behaviour for a second time.

So far so good, it would be hard to find a stronger consensus on any issue than the one in support of tackling anti-social behaviour quickly and effectively. 

However, m’learned friends at the consistently excellent Nearly Legal website take a different view.  And, as NL says, it is housing lawyers who will have to make sense of this when court cases follow. 

So what are their key points?

First, NL say that a criminal conviction would already be incontestable as a fact in civil possession proceedings – there is no need for something to be ‘proved again’ on a possession claim at all.

Secondly, they see definitional problems.  Mr Shapps says the new mandatory ground will follow a tenant being found guilty of ‘housing related anti-social behaviour’ – but, say NL, that “covers a lot of ground, from the minor but annoying to the very serious indeed. And ‘found guilty’ – does this mean a conviction in the Magistrates or Crown Court?  Or the Magistrates making an ASBO or ASBI?”

Thirdly, they see problems in the word ‘mandatory’, which due to a case called Pinnock, is a bit more of a tricky concept than it used to be and not as certain as Mr Shapps would like.

Fourthly, they say there is little if any evidence that non-mandatory possession proceedings are what is getting in the way of dealing with the problem, even in the dreadful ASB cases quoted in Mr Shapps’ press release.

NL places the problem closer to home, and in particular the failure of some landlords and the police to take more effective and joined up action against perpetrators or to support victims, and the lack of dedicated funding.  So, they conclude, “Unless existing powers are actually used (and the dedicated joined-up ASB teams funded), the fact that there may be a kind of mandatory possession proceeding .. is going to make no practical difference to the situation at all, as there will be as few ‘housing related ASB’ prosecutions as there are now, or even fewer.”

Mr Shapps announcement is therefore, they say, “a chocolate teapot”.

PS – another sceptical lawyer writes on 24 Dash – see here http://www.24dash.com/news/housing/2011-01-14-Lawyer-in-warning-over-fast-track-evicitons-under-ASBO-reforms

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Localism Bill – the Pickle Family Circus

<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.

The famous American Pickle Family Circus was known for its ‘Big Juggle’ that ended every performance in an intricate club passing pattern.  As the Localism Bill, published yesterdy, passes ‘powers’ (ie the blame for cuts) down to councils, ‘Pickles Big Juggle’ seems an appropriate metaphor.

For social housing and homelessness, the Bill had few real surprises as everything had been widely trailed or pre-announced.  We’ll pick up on specifics in later posts but here’s an initial reaction to the Social Housing Reform chapter of the Bill.

On allocations, councils will be able to decide who goes on waiting lists, which will no doubt lead to great claims in the future about ‘cutting waiting lists’.  We will be back to local manipulation of the list for political ends.  Transferring tenants will be moved outside the waiting list, but there is no evidence to support the claim that this will make it ‘easier for them to move’.        

On homelessness, its a nerve to call this reform rather than virtual repeal.  Come on Shelter, time to wake up to what is actually happening here!   And come on LibDems, the homelessness legislation was a Liberal private member’s Bill in the first place, something the Party has always been proud of  – time for you to speak up.  The government complains that 20% of social lettings go to homeless people ‘at the expense of other people in need on the housing waiting list’.  A miserable and ‘divide and rule’ justification for an extraordinarily backward step. 

The introduction of ‘flexible tenancies’ (insecure fixed term tenancies) which will gradually turn social housing into transit camp accommodation.  Some housing association chief executives really like this, so I am even more concerned.   

Reform of council housing finance is something I welcome but we still have to be careful about how much will be returned to the Treasury and how the detailed formulae will apply to different councils with stock.  Called a ‘key plank of localism’ but a previous Labour measure. 

The proposed Homeswap Scheme again is something to welcome as mobility arrangements need a boost.  Landlords will be required to participate in home swap schemes. 

‘Reform’ of the regulatory system and abolishing the Tenant Services Authority will, in some magical and as yet unexplained way, “put local people in control of driving up standards of social housing management and resolving most failings.”  Social tenants will receive ‘stronger tools to hold landlords to account’ but I’ll believe it when I see it.  The more likely explanation lies in the statement that ‘State intervention will be reduced’.  A positive change will be to end the system of two separate ombudsmen handling complaints, providing a common route for all social housing tenants.

In London, new powers for the Mayor will include full control over housing investment, a good step, and the devolution of more planning decisions to the boroughs.

Watch this space for more discussion of these issues over the coming few weeks.

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The new serfs

<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.

In my first ever post on Red Brick I traced the development of security of tenure in social housing and the reasons for the introduction of secure tenancies to council housing in 1980.  To put it mildly, landlords did not always behave well and tenants needed basic consumer protection against arbitrary or unfair actions.  As I said there, without security tenants have fewer rights in relation to losing their homes than drivers have in relation to parking tickets.

Are social landlords better now?  Yes they are, indeed much much better, but they are still highly variable and some, frankly, just can’t be trusted.  It has taken years of regulation and inspection to change the attitude and practice of some of them, and that pressure is about to be stripped away.  At the bottom of it is respect for tenants, who are now informed customers rather than grateful serfs*, tugging the forelock to the landlord. 

I am hugely impressed by the humanity and commitment of most people who work in social housing.  It can be a hard and challenging sector to work in.  But I also have little doubt that some will slip back into old ways given half a chance.  I have sat in many a room with senior managers moaning that their basic problem is the tenants.  Nothing wrong with the properties, one housing director said, it’s the people that need fixing.  Or the housing association chief who said that the problem nowadays was that tenants no longer feared their landlord.  

Security of tenure regulates the relationship.  Bad tenants can be removed, so it is not a tenancy for life as then propagandists say.  The landlord has to go to Court and provide evidence against a set of rules fixed by Parliament.  A serious decision – to remove somebody from their home – is taken seriously and with proper process; people have clear rights to object and put their case. 

Landlords hate the Courts, partly because the wheels of justice are slow, cumbersome, bureaucratic and not always rational in outcome (here they have a fair point), and partly because the Courts are a check and balance on their administrative power.  The Courts don’t always throw tenants out just because the landlord says so. 

With temporary tenancies the decision to remove the tenant from their home will be taken administratively by the landlord.  No doubt there will be rules, but these will be locally determined and I doubt if there will be much transparency and there will be no effective external regulation.  Internally, the power to make decisions will be delegated.  Housing officers will be required to make decisions I do not believe they are equipped to take or ever will be: whether a tenant stays or goes, whether they pass or fail a means test, whether a tenant still needs or, worst of all, deserves the tenancy.  It will change the whole basis of the relationship between tenants and front-line housing staff.  Tenants will feel more fearful, deferential, and uncertain.  The scope for bad practice and error, discrimination and bad behaviour by landlords will increase.  By mirroring the arrangements in the private rented sector, the social sector will import more of the failings of that sector as well. 

This is why I think the housing lobby will make a serious mistake if it gets into an argument with the government about the minimum length of the new tenancies – 3 years is better than 2 – rather than articulate and defend the core principle of security of tenure itself. 

*Even under feudalism landlords could not dispossess serfs without cause.

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Feeling Insecure

<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.

30 years ago a political consensus emerged that council tenants should have the protection of security of tenure, leading to the ‘Tenants Charter’ in the 1980 Housing Act. All political parties supported the move – it was a Labour bill then taken up by the Tories after Thatcher won power.

The policy did not however emerge from academia or from Whitehall. It was the outcome of campaigns and pressure from tenants all over the country. It was a campaign for fairness and justice, that landlords should not be able to remove tenants from their homes without going before a court and providing evidence that a term of the tenancy had been breached in such a way as to justify the tenant losing their home. It was a campaign rooted in the bad practice not only of council landlords but also housing associations who sometimes removed tenants in a punitive and capricious way with no rights of complaint or redress.

Losing your home, and probably being declared intentionally homeless as well, is a serious matter. The basic principle is that it should not be decided by the landlord acting alone, but should be based on evidence and a set of rules. That is all security of tenure and the many extensive ‘grounds for possession’ entails: simple consumer protection. Without security of tenure, tenants have fewer rights against eviction than I have to appeal against parking tickets.

Many people become social tenants after major disruption in their lives, especially homelessness and being dumped in temporary accommodation for months or years at a time. Many people who become tenants do so because they are vulnerable in some way, through age or disability or because they have children. A secure home provides them with the platform to rebuild their lives, to put their children in a school for more than a temporary period, for some to register with a doctor for the first time, for many to consider work for the first time. They become part of the community, neighbours, and, because they have a long-term home, feel it is worth making a local contribution. Security is the foundation of the big society. We all say we want to build more stable and mixed communities but a policy of insecure tenancies would move some people on against their will at the point where they are finally settled and likely to be contributing most.

The government has yet to explain how insecure tenure will work in practice except to say that new tenants will be reviewed after a period to see if they still qualify for a home. Insecure tenants will live in fear that their landlord will decide against them and they will be out. It is an extraordinary disincentive for people to take work or to get a better job. In my experience social tenants simply do not fit the media and government stereotype of fecklessness and scrounging: they are aspirational, but their aspirations are realistic. They are not anticipating setting up a business, becoming the next self-made millionaire, and joining the Cabinet. They aspire to getting a low paid job, enough to make ends meet, or to getting a promotion and having a bit more spare cash. They aspire to leading a better life or at least ensuring that their children do.

The government has begged the question of what will trigger eviction. Few if any social tenants will make it to the higher rate tax band so there will have to be some lower point at which a tenant is deemed to have enough to justify being kicked out. It will be a bureaucratic nightmare of means tests and reviews. To be honest, some social landlords have difficulty managing one set of tenancy conditions without taking this on as well.

Nor should we give any time of day to the argument that it is right that tenants should be moved on from ‘subsidised’ housing. Council housing no longer receives subsidy, it pays its own way with rent covering costs including the cost of debt. Housing associations receive grants (well, they did until the CSR) to help meet the capital cost of new homes but there is no revenue subsidy – rents cover costs and over the lifetime of a home will make a significant surplus. Even if social housing had a straightforward revenue subsidy, my response would be ‘so what’. Society subsidises poor people is not a shock headline. The economy is full of subsidies and reliefs.

As a society we have failed to tackle poverty and inequality. That is why social rented housing exists and why it will continue to be essential. Over 30 years, social housing has been given the residual role of housing the poorest and most vulnerable and, by and large, it has done a hellish job well. But it has only done so by learning to respect its customers individually and as a group and by creating a partnership between landlord and tenant. We should not go back to the dark ages.