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Myths about migrants

On Red Brick we’ve taken an interest in trying to test out and bust a few of the myths in housing.
One area where there are more myths than most is in migration policy and the access that ‘foreigners’ have to social housing.  It’s interesting that social housing is often portrayed in the media as being the lowest of the low, except when it is occupied by immigrants, in which case it is a wonderful national asset that should only go to ‘British people’.
Migration Watch gets a lot of sympathetic coverage in some parts of the media and their latest use and abuse of statistics comes in their ‘study’ on social housing and migration in England, in which they claim that the social housing requirements of new immigrants will
cost the taxpayer £1 billion a year for the next 25 years.  They say that 45 additional social homes would have to be built everyday, or nearly 1400 a month, over that period to meet the extra demand” and “The impact of immigration on the availability of social housing for British people has been airbrushed out for too long. Either the government must cut
immigration very substantially as they have promised or they must invest very large sums in the construction of extra social housing”.

At least I can agree with the last 13 words of that quote.
John Perry, who blogs at the Migrant Rights Network, has analysed Migration Watch’s claims and the Migration Observatory has published a detailed briefing on the real facts about migrants and housing.
Perry demonstrates that there is no automatic link between the number of new households that are projected to be formed by migrants and the provision of social housing.  On current government spending plans migrants would have to take virtually all of the funding available and new homes provided for the claim to be true.
Yet few if any new migrants will actually get these homes.  The percentage of new social lettings going to foreign nationals is 7%, most of whom have lived here for many years in
order to qualify.  The Migration Observatory points out that 75% of new immigrants go into the private rented sector, and that is probably where the serious issues around migration and housing lie.
The veracity of Migration Watch’s analysis can be summed up by the graph they include which shows the ‘cumulative stock of migrants’ and ‘households on waiting lists’ on the same chart, as if they were correlated in some way.  You might as well correlate Newcastle United’s league position and the frequency of cyclones in south east Asia.
With his Chartered Institute of Housing hat on, John Perry has also written a helpful guide on the role of housing providers in relation to UK migration and how to handle national policies and trends, published by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation.
The paper comments that “Migration policy often focuses on the number of new migrants entering the UK, but little is done to support neighbourhoods where migrants already live. Central government is withdrawing from these issues at a local level, placing more
importance than ever before on regional and local leadership
It then highlights the ways in which housing providers have already taken steps towards better neighbourhood cohesion and integration and suggests ways in which they could do more because they are well placed to do so.  It also explores the perceived and actual
competition between migrants and host communities for housing.
Migration is a complex and emotive topic where exaggeration is rife and ‘facts’ are often exploited by the media to promote a particular political agenda.  The housing world generally and many individual providers have a terrific record in promoting community coherence, work that is needed more than ever after the events of the last few weeks.  There is an appetite in the sector to do even more and the CIH/JRF guide and the MO briefing are invaluable and highly recommended tools.

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Who should get priority for social housing, people in work or people in need of work?

Ed Miliband and Caroline Flint have suggested that being employed should be a factor in social housing allocations.  It has been suggested that this is an effective ‘message’ to the ‘squeezed middle’, which I commented on in a previous blog.  But, whatever the message it conveys, does it stand up as a housing policy?  
Guest blogger Sheila Spencer takes up the debate. 
There’s been some debate within the Labour Party, at senior levels, and on the pages of Inside Housing, about giving priority to people on the basis of their employment status, and it seems to me that some people are missing the point a bit.  Ed Miliband, for example, has pledged to make it easier for voluntary workers and the employed to gain council housing, to fit with the idea that the welfare state should reward those who contribute. But what about those who can’t yet contribute in this way?
I know that some councils have already adopted this policy: Manchester, for example, gives extra priority on the basis of someone in the household being in work or contributing
to their community. Manchester’s allocations policy says that the idea of this is to encourage people to access work. But the person in work has to be employed for 16 hours or more, and must have been in work for at least 9 months in the last year – so it is not
encouraging people to move into work, just giving priority to those who already have work.
It seems to me that this puts those who are out of work and without anywhere to live at a considerable disadvantage. If you are homeless, you are fairly unlikely to be able to get a job until you have an address; and if you are living in temporary accommodation, in most cases the housing and support costs stop people from being able to take on a job whilst they are living there. So this policy puts an additional barrier in the way. It’s really
a Catch 22 – you don’t have priority to get rehoused because you’re not working, but you can’t apply for work because you won’t be able to afford to have anywhere to live in the meantime.
There is one glimmer of light for people in temporary accommodation: many people are now getting involved in some way as a volunteer, as part of “meaningful activity” and tangible support to move on with their lives. But Manchester’s scheme seems to restrict the community contribution to the area you want to be housed in – expecting, I would guess, that this is as part of a neighbourhood or community group there. Again, this could exclude people who are not yet part of a community.
I prefer the schemes which give people an incentive for looking for work by awarding priority for rehousing, or priority for particular places, to those who have pledged to get into work, or training or education once they have somewhere to live, and which supports them to do so. So those who have only just got themselves into a position where they can look for work are able to do that with a steady home to live in. Isn’t that a responsible way
to look at offering social housing? And how can we justify rewarding people who take responsibility for their lives whilst excluding those at the bottom of the heap, and in effect, taking on policies which keep them there?

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Time to say goodbye

Love it or loathe it, the Audit Commission Housing Inspectorate will be missed after it closes operations this month.
I have a long list of irritations with how it went about its work. Number one is probably the poor quality of some of the inspectors, who sometimes failed to follow their own guidelines about transparency, feedback and having ‘no surprises’ in their conclusions, or imported their own views about how something should be done and turning it into a supposedly objective judgement. Having experienced inspection outcomes that were both significantly higher and significantly lower than the service being inspected justified, I’m left with the nagging feeling that some were preordained and that political fixing could make a difference. Some services seemed to get stars simply because of their previous reputation and sometimes there seemed quite a gap between the evidence and the conclusion.
All of this would be denied by the AC of course and the upside of its achievements comfortably exceeds my annoyances. Most importantly, there is evidence that after decades of flatlining, housing management standards really did pick up and improve during the period that the housing inspectorate was active. The first series of inspections of housing association services burst the balloon that their chief executives had been blowing up about the quality of their own services. Shining a light into a few dark corners brought significant improvement to the sector, in both councils and housing associations. The weight given to the experience of tenants increased as the regime was refined and improved. The set of KLOEs (key lines of enquiry) that the AC produced was a brave attempt to provide a template for a good service, even if they were then rather slavishly followed. Whilst the industry of pre-inspection consultancy prospered, the ideas of regular service review, external challenge and constant improvement became endemic, driving service improvement and a focus on tenant satisfaction.
There were a couple of areas where I am happy to own up to just being wrong in my early views on the inspection regime. One was that the traffic light system was superficial and trivialised important judgements – in fact it was a great success and an effective communication tool. Second that introducing the link between inspection outcomes and funding in the ALMO programme wouldn’t work. In fact it was a great motivator and became an important driver of service improvement and tenant engagement, helping to restore the credibility of council housing.
Maybe I’ll be wrong again but my view even before the Election was that the inspection element of the new TSA regulatory regime risked not being comprehensive and rigorous enough to keep standards improving and that some organisations would slip back into bad old ways. Since the Election, the changes made by this government convince me that it will be far worse than that. Even if the TSA (whilst it exists) and the HCA, as the new regulator, ensure the financial viability and probity of the sector, they will be toothless tigers in relation to service quality. I would welcome the emphasis on local tenant scrutiny if I didn’t know that it will be hopelessly under-resourced and open to manipulation by landlords of all types wanting to talk a good service instead of delivering one.
One of many challenges facing landlords will be to put sufficient effort and resources into making tenant scrutiny work and to maintain the tradition of external rigorous challenge based on the methods developed by the Housing Inspectorate. I hope they will but I fear they won’t – and the industry will take a step backwards.

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Shapps’ Eviction Proposals Are Bad News for Average Earners

The idea of evicting social housing tenants on higher incomes emerged in Westminster, based on some very dodgy statistics about how many tenants earned over £50,000 and £100,000.  It appears that after years of saying soial housing had too many poor people, now the Tories say it has too many rich people as well.  I suspect they just don’t like social housing.  Now that Grant Shapps has taken up the attack, it has become a national story.  The original story was broken by the Leader of the Labour Group on Westminster, Paul Dimoldenberg.  In a guest blog, he accuses Shapps of tabloid-style reasoning.  No surprise there then.
So Grant Shapps MP thinks it is a ‘no brainer’ to evict Council and Housing Association tenant families who between them earn £100,000 a year. He reckons that there are 6,000 such families across the UK who he says are rich enough to be able to buy their own home and should be evicted so that they can make way for a family who is in more serious need of a home.
Well, I certainly have a number of serious concerns about this proposal which has emerged out of the blue without any consultation or thought to the consequences.
In typical tabloid-style reasoning Mr Shapps raises the spectre of RMT trade union leader Bob Crow who earns £130,000 a year but still lives in a council house in north London. Interestingly, Mr Shapps can name no other high-earning individual or family to make his case and his argument rests entirely on the personal circumstances and choices made by Government ‘hate-figure-in-chief’ Mr Crow.
But the facts of these so-called ‘high-earning’ Council tents are a million miles from the isolated Bob Crow example.
A more typical ‘high-earning’ family is the one living in Grant Shapps’ constituency in a 2-bed Council or Housing Association flat where the parents both have middle income jobs earning £25,000 each and their daughter and her fiancee, again both earning £25,000, are saving for a deposit on their first home. Does Mr Shapps really think that this family is ‘rich’?
Does Mr Shapps really expect Council and Housing Association tenant families like this to reveal their incomes if it means that, by doing so, they will be evicted if they are thought by the Government to be earning too much? And how many people will decide not to work overtime or go for promotion if it means that they will creep over the £100,000 threshold and face eviction?
If Council and Housing Association tenants have to reveal the income of all family members living in their home, will it include the state pension of an elderly grandparent living with them? And will the meagre earnings of the teenage daughter with a Saturday job also be required to be included, too? Real life is very different from Mr Shapps’ easy headline grabbing and ill-thought out policies. So far he has failed to answer any of these points.
Or will local Councils and Housing Associations be told to make assumptions about their tenants’ income and then to evict those families who they estimate to be ‘wealthy’?
Mr Shapps says a family with a combined income of £100,000 should be able to buy a home of their own, but this will be different across the UK. In London, the South East and South West, a young couple with a combined income of £50,000 and living in a Council flat with mum and dad will not be able to get on the home-ownership ladder if that family is told to move out and buy their own flat. They will end up in private rented accommodation paying a lot more in rent.
And how did this £100,000 figure come about? Was it the result of research or is it a convenient figure that will guarantee tabloid headlines?
Posted on 6 June 2011.  Later Paul added:
Housing Minister Grant Shapps’ plans to evict Council and Housing Association households with a combined income of £100,000 unravelled today on the BBC Radio 2 ‘Jeremy Vine Show’ when he contradicted statements he made over the weekend and now claimed that his new policy would mean that families with four or more people on average incomes would not be evicted if their combined household income is more than £100,000.

In a bizarre example of ‘policy making on the hoof’, Mr Shapps told BBC Radio 2 listeners that

  • The £100,000 income threshold only applies to individuals and couples with a combined income of £100k
  • Other family members’ income (e.g. children, granparents) will not be counted

However, Mr Shapps’ claim that this new policy would mean that people with high incomes would move out and allow people in housing need to take their place, was immediately in tatters when he revealed that if the high earners paid the market rent then they could continue to live in their Council or Housing Association property as now.

Mr Shapps failed to spell out how Councils and Housing Associations would gather the information on ‘high earning’ tenant incomes or how much the Town Hall bureaucracy would cost to set up, run and police. Mr Shapps also failed to answer how he would stop high earning individuals declaring that their income was £95,000 or stop the two person household declaring that they earned £45,000 each in order to dodge having to pay market rents.

By introducing a new policy of letting high earners stay if they pay market rents, he will provide very few new homes for people in housing need. And much of the extra cash generated by increased market rents will go topay for an army of Town Hall snoopers whose job it will be to set up a new bureaucracy to find out tenants’ income and enforce the new red-tape regime introduced by Mr Shapps.
Last month, Westminster’s Housing Cabinet member Philippa Roe claimed that the Council wanted to increase rents for high earners by “a little bit more”, but now Grant Shapps has revealed the truth and tenants will face a 400% increase in rents as they go from their current level of around £110 a week to market rents of £450 a week or more.

The answer to local housing shortages is to build more homes for social rent, not to divide the community and set middle earners, the low paid and high earners against each other. Giving Councils like Westminster Council the power to set their own rent levels will mean that Council rents will go up for everyone, not just those on over £100,000.

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Is Social Housing Welfare? (2)

Picking up Tony’s theme in our last post, our guest blogger seeks to answer the same question.
In housing circles there have been debates for years about the ‘role’ of council housing or more widely social housing, and of course these were given a further boost byJohnHills’ report in 2007. Before the election, as readers of red Brick are probably well aware, think tanks were falling over themselves to redefine – and usually narrow – social housing’s role.
But recently there have been even more worrying developments – typified by the media castigation of Bob Crowe for living in council housing which Steve covered in an earlier blog.  Nothing could be more typical of the recent trend than the disgraceful article by Mary Dejevsky about fraudulent tenancies, which called for all council tenancies to be ended on 1st April 2013 at which point there would be a sort of moratorium and people (presumably by now waiting outside the front gates of their houses) would have to justify their entitlement to a continued tenancy.
As CIH’s Abi Davies has pointed out, while of course social housing is part of the welfare state, it is not ‘welfare’ in the sense that it’s only available when needed like a hospital emergency service.  There has always been ambiguity about these issues in the media, most of whose commentators probably know and care little about social housing, but the recent trend is marked by a succession of coded comments about the sector by ministers, which are then regurgitated in the usual exaggerated ways by the media to produce a general picture of tenants who want to live in social housing long-term somehow being abusers of the system. 
Steve has previously written about the misleading term ‘tenancies for life’, which is part of this slur campaign, when security of tenure is simply about proper consumer protection.  CIH is about to publish a book, Housing and Inequality, which reminds readers that housing policy is about people’s homes and the home is a key ingredient of people’s happiness.  This is something deliberately overlooked in current debate about security of tenure, the need for more ‘mobility’ and the issue of ‘underoccupation’.  It is almost as if there are two housing systems, one in which owner-occupiers with adequate and secure incomes have an almost unthreatened dominion over their homes, while the more than one third of households who are not owners or who have only a tenuous grip on ownership have to live with much less security and less right to regard their house as their home at all. 
The other slur is to describe council housing (in particular) as ‘subsidised housing’.  There are several issues here. One is that all tenures are subsidised – the last government spent about £1bn in its last year subsidising owner-occupiers, for example.  Of course social tenants pay sub-market rents, partly because of historic grants and subsidies and partly because social landlords are non-profit.  However, if someone shops at the Co-op, we don’t describe his shopping as ‘subsidised’, do we?
Let me make a positive proposal to address this particular issue, at least as far as council housing is concerned. In a year’s time (April 2012) council housing becomes self-financing, and this presents a golden opportunity to kick the ‘subsidised’ tag.  The Treasury is forcing councils to take on £6.5bn of extra debt, not currently in the system, to compensate the Exchequer for the profits (yes, profits) it would have made if council housing had still be on its books.
Let’s make a virtue of this necessity.  Every Labour councillor, every council, the LGA, trade bodies like ARCH and the NFA, the CIH, trade unions, the four national tenants’ organisations – all should plan to publicly celebrate on 1st April 2012 the fact that council housing will have paid off its historic debts to government.  From April next year it will no longer be subsidised, and in fact it will be making a modest return to reinvest in the homes it provides.  Non-profit, yes, but subsidised – no!

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Not just deserts, just puddings

It’s a complicated business, housing.  Those poor souls at the Policy Exchange and their pollsters YouGov apparently can’t tell the difference between social housing and council housing.  Despite generating alarming headlines (‘Public backs limit to social housing areas’ – thanks, Inside Housing) a glance at the detail of the poll (and the base data, entitled ‘Fairness’ presumably with a touch of irony) shows just a little confusion.  Although the discussion in the Policy Exchange report ‘Just Deserts’ is about social housing, the actual questions asked were about council housing.  Just as well they didn’t wander into the fantasy world of ‘Affordable Rent’?*
Strange questions they were too.  “People should not be offered council houses that are worth more than the average house in their local authority” Agree or disagree?  Despite requiring considerable knowledge – what is the average, how do council houses compare in value, might there be a different answer for housing associations, does this ever happen in reality? – the question is really quite leading.  So no surprise that a majority say they agree.  It tells us very little about public attitudes to council houses, and nothing whatsoever about public attitudes to housing association properties to rent (because they weren’t asked about that). 
And the second question was “People should not be offered council housing in expensive areas” Agree or disagree?  Also rather leading and confusing. 
This selection of questions tells me more about Policy Exchange and the point they wanted to make in the first place.  I suspect they know – and if they don’t, YouGov should – that if you ask positive questions about mixed and balanced communities you get very different answers.  But that wouldn’t fit PEx’s obsession with contradicting the pro-equality conclusions in The Spirit Level, would it?  
*PS I’ve started calling ‘Affordable Rent’ SCARE tenancies – standing for So-Called Affordable REnt.  Will it catch on?

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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.”

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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

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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:

 The Tory back channel policies can be found here:

And Dave Hill’s history can be found here:

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.”

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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.