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Retribution for the riots: some common sense at last

The news that Wandsworth Council has backed away from its decision to pursue the eviction of the mother and 8-year-old sister of Daniel Sartain-Clarke, who was convicted of burglary during the August riots, is an important victory for the Labour opposition in Wandsworth and a defeat for the vindictive and punitive wing of the Tory Party, including Cameron and Shapps and their local henchman, Council leader Ravi Govindia.  The decision has greatly disappointed the Daily Mail.
Immediately after the riots, when the idea of evicting the families of rioters who were social tenants was first raised, I argued on Red Brick that this approach ‘may allow politicians to sound tough.  It may be what people want.  But it isn’t justice.  It’s double punishment, it’s guilt by association, it’s discrimination on the grounds of tenure, pure and simple. ‘
Such was the furore raised by the right wing media, a bandwagon immediately jumped on by Cameron and Shapps, that it was a brave decision by the opposition in Wandsworth to stand against the decision in principle.  The disgrace is that the Council moved against the tenant before her son was convicted of anything and before the circumstances of the case, and whether there was any mitigation, became clear.  The Tories, nationally and locally, were driven by the cheap headlines they could get and the desire to find someone, other than themselves, to blame.  As ever, social housing tenants were an easy target as people like Iain Duncan Smith tried to place the blame on ‘estates’.
I know nothing about Daniel apart from what I read in the press and on Wandsworth Labour’s website.  An 11 month sentence certainly seems to comply with Cameron’s instruction that rioters should all go to jail.  But I would commend a brilliant blog post by  Jules Birch on the double standards involved, comparing and contrasting the treatment given to Sartain-Clarke and another double-barreled thief, Antony Worrall Thompson, who was a repeat offender but a celebrity who got away with a caution and an apology.  Certainly no-one argued that Worral Thompson’s family should be evicted from their home.
It is unclear whether any other council or housing association is still pursuing the eviction of a tenant because of a riot-related conviction, currently the law would appear to allow this if it could be classed as being in the neighbourhood of the property concerned.  It is also uncertain whether Shapps and Cameron will actually pursue their plan to extend the law in a move that would entrench the double punishment of the guilty, the punishment of the innocent, and discrimination against social tenants.
Stop press: a good update from Wandsworth Labour Councillor Leonie Cooper here.

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Social Tenants' Bedroom Tax: now it’s up to Lib Dem MPs

Yesterday’s defeat of the Government in the House of Lords on the ‘Bedroom Tax’ – the punitive proposal to remove benefit from social tenants deemed to be underoccupying their homes (on very strict definitions) even when they have no possibility of being able to move to a smaller home – gives the Coalition a decision to make.  They can either accept the amendment agreed by the Lords or seek to overturn it when it goes back to the Commons.
The electoral arithmetic is such that the Government will not be able to get this nasty little proposal though the Commons if all Lib Dems MPs oppose it and threaten to join Labour in the voting lobby.  This is what should happen because there is nothing in Lib Dem policy or in the coalition agreement that would suggest they are required to support the Government on this.  Given that Cameron’s favourite game, no doubt learned at his educational institutions, seems to be the ritual humiliation of his fag, it is time for Clegg to make a stand on a matter of principle.
The amendment means that the bedroom tax – loss of £13 per week on average for some 670,000 working age social tenants on housing benefit – would not apply to social tenants with only one bedroom additional to their needs and would not apply unless they had been made an offer of suitable alternative accommodation.
The bedroom tax proposal aims to save some £500m a year on the housing benefit bill, a figure that seems unachievable given that a proportion of households would inevitably become unintentionally homeless at considerable expense to the public purse and a proportion of those having to pay the tax would move into private rented accommodation at higher rents and higher benefit costs.  It has also been argued that it would be counterproductive in tackling underoccupation because it excludes older tenants who are more likely to underoccupy.
Many examples were given during the debate of households that require additional space for entirely justifiable reasons.  Lords also quoted the work done by the National Housing Federation which showed that the number of hosueholds needing to move to one bedroom accommodation to escape the tax would far exceed the total supply of one bedroom properties available to meet all needs.
The whole debate can be found in the House of Lords Hansard .
The amendment was moved in the Lords by Lord Best.  He said:

Under the fierce new test, a family would be counted as underoccupying if, for example, two teenage girls were not sharing the same room, or if an older couple, one of whom is below pension age, have a two-bedroom flat. All those deemed to be underoccupying will have to move and downsize to somewhere smaller. If they do not, even if there is simply nowhere smaller for them to move to, then they must pay the new penalty.
Six hundred and seventy thousand households receiving housing benefit will be caught in this trap, rising to some 740,000 in the years ahead. If they do not move out, they will be charged an average of £13 per week, which will have to come out of their low earnings or their other benefits, which are meant to cover food, fuel, clothing, and specifically not housing. These areby definition very poor households, and the new tax will represent a significant reduction in their living standards.

Speaking in support, Lord McKenzie of Luton said

No one doubts that underoccupation is a problem. We have a chronic shortage of housing stock and a huge demand for affordable housing. Yet the Government’s policy is the wrong way to go about tackling the problem, as it punishes people for housing choices over which they have little control rather than enabling the best fit between the available properties and the needs of households.

Also speaking in support, Baroness Hollis of Heigham said

Grant Shapps said that we should not bully people out of their homes. He is right. Yet in this Bill we are saying to people who have lived in their homes all their lives, done what was asked of them and behaved responsibly-two-thirds of them having some disability-that their benefit is being cut from underneath them through no fault of their own but just because we in Westminster are changing the rules. We tell them to downsize while knowing that they cannot do so, so we fine them instead for what is not their fault and for what they cannot change. It is morally wrong to punish people for something that is not their fault and to punish them when they are innocent. That is not decent, it is profoundly unfair, and we should not do it.

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Tenant organisation is social housing’s ‘big society’

<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 no surprise that Liverpool City Council has pulled out as one of the government’s ‘vanguard communities’ for the Big Society.  The city faces huge cuts and many of those cuts will have a big impact on projects that could be described as furthering the big society, and not only in the voluntary sector.  For the government to accuse Liverpool of pulling a political stunt shows how crude their spin machine has become.   

Despite some elaborate language and a smattering of half-decent projects, the Tory concept of the Big Society is floundering because it has become a subterfuge for devolving and diverting blame for the cuts.   Its key themes – empowering individuals and communities, encouraging social responsibility, creating an enabling and accountable state, and, more controversially, public sector reform – often sound ok but when thay are twisted to fit Tory ideology and deliver Tory policies they have little to do with the Big Society and a lot to do with the Small State and deficit reduction. 

Insofar as it means anything at all, the Big Society should be natural territory for the left and for Labour.  It is not necessary to have a ‘Small State’ as a precondition for a Big Society, indeed public spending is the essential underpinning.  As Labour’s policy reviews get under way, it will be a good thing if many of the new policies that emerge have a clear focus on building stronger individual rights, stronger communities and stronger local government.  Labour’s politics should welcome and encourage a flourishing civil society in all its forms, even if it sometimes makes life harder for Labour politicians. 

The Big Society is a new presentation, recycled and rebadged, of age-old ideas.   Community action in its various guises, community control of buildings, tenant participation and control, mutualism, community involvement in local decisions, these are all natural elements of progressive left politics.   

Tenants and Residents Associations are perhaps the best example in housing, and they have been a feature of the landscape for a century or more.  Often with no resources at all to speak of, they organise and promote projects of all shapes and sizes to match community needs and interests, ranging from social activities to youth projects to festivals to advice surgeries to crime reduction to befriending schemes to consultations on council policies to managing buildings to managing housing estates.  They are the front line in holding landlords to account.  The list is endless, as is the commitment of the people involved.  An effective TRA can make the difference between an estate failing and it being a place where people want to live.  TRAs demonstrate the ability and potential of ordinary people to achieve things and put the lie to the negative and stigmatising media image of social tenants.

The reality of this government’s approach to the Big Society is exemplified by its decision to strangle the National Tenant Voice at birth immediately after the Election.  Seen by the Labour Government as the third arm of the new architecture for social housing (together with the investor, the Homes and Communities Agency, and the regulator, the Tenant Services Authority) the NTV was fashioned by the existing national representative tenant organisations not only to organise tenant self-advocacy at a national level but also to provide support and encouragement to the many thousands of TRAs and individual tenants who struggle in isolation to improve their communities.    

The NTV would have cost less than two pence a year for everyone living in social housing but its Big Society impact would have been enormous.  Closing it down shows that saving a few pence means more to the government than all the rhetoric.

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Under-occupation – the market solution?

<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.

A lot more is said than done about the issue of under-occupation of social rented homes.

Grant Shapps has allocated a piddling sum of £13m amongst the 50 councils with the largest numbers of under-occupiers.  Of course it is a move in the right direction, if a small one, and the linked announcement that a central unit will be set up in the Chartered Institute of Housing should be a valuable resource supporting local initiatives. 

Ministers say there are 430,000 under-occupied social homes in England – where tenants have two or more bedrooms more than they require (against the ‘bedroom standard’).  I support the focus on  tenants with 2+ additional bedrooms because tenants with one spare room over the rather ancient ‘bedroom standard’ do not regard themselves as under-occupiers. 

With an estimated 258,000 social renters living in overcrowded conditions, simplistic arguments are sometimes made that the problem could be ‘solved’ if selfish older tenants were stopped from blocking social homes needed for larger families.  Calls for draconian action of some kind to require under-occupiers to move to smaller accommodation seem to have been rejected – the government says it has “accepted the basic right of older tenants to stay in their homes, and that policies of encouragement are better than those of coercion….. Ministers are clear that they will not force people to move – but want to provide a helping hand to those wanting to do so.” 

Just like older home owners, older tenants have often raised their families in these homes and are emotionally attached to them, still have many family visitors, are part of the local community, have neighbourhood support networks, and now have time to enjoy the garden if they have one.  They have probably paid for the property a few times over in rent, and now contribute through rent pooling to the cost of homes elsewhere. 

Bespoke solutions are needed, with landlords who know their tenants talking with them individually and devising a solution that meets their needs and preferences.  It might involve financial incentives, a choice of suitable alternatives in preferred locations, and practical support with moving and other arrangements.  We need far more schemes like the London Seaside and Country Homes scheme, offering tenants genuine retirement opportunities if that is their choice.  It is regrettable that financial incentives to downsize have been cut back in many places – I suspect by an amount many times greater than Mr Shapps’ new fund.     

Mr Shapps says that he wants to “make it easier for those tenants wanting to move from larger family homes to smaller, more manageable homes, to do so.”  But where, exactly, are these homes?  Like people who are being decanted for development, older tenants realise that they have a little bit of negotiating strength for once.  They will only accept somewhere smaller if it is in some way better or suits their needs more than their current home.  The right to buy and the failure to reinvest mean that there are many fewer smaller dwellings on the ground floor in good locations with access to outside space.  Many top class sheltered housing schemes have had their onsite wardens removed due to changes in the Supporting People regime.  There is little new development.  As in so many other areas, supply and short-sighted funding regimes are the barriers to a sensible policy.   

Now for the warning.  Everything is not always what it seems with this government.  We should not forget the analysis of Mr Shapps’ friends at Localis.  In their report on social housing reform, which pointed the way to many of this government’s policies, they argued for a market approach not a change in powers:

“There has been a number of calls for Landlords to gain more power to require tenants to move to more appropriately sized accommodation to deal with under-occupation. Whilst such powers would assist with this problem, the move to market rents and personal subsidy would, in our view, address this in a more fundamental way as under-occupancy will become more expensive for tenants as their rents, but not their housing benefit, rise.” 

We have had a number of policy shifts in this direction already,  both through rents policy and housing benefit.  Call me cynical  but, despite the warm words, I think this is the real agenda.

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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