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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.
Monimbo
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 http://www.communities.gov.uk/documents/housing/pdf/1775577.pdf

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Social housing ‘reform’: less Localism and more Localis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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.