Opinion: Housing – winding the clock back

Friday 9th November 2012 could well come to be seen as a landmark date in the history of English housing policy. A key change introduced by the Localism Act 2011 came into effect. The Liberal Democrats are part of the Government presiding over the change. Is it a change we can be proud of?

Local authorities can now discharge their statutory homelessness duty by allocating households a tenancy in the private rented sector rather than in social housing. This has been an option for years. But until now to pursue this route the local authority has had to secure agreement from the household concerned. The Localism Act removes this requirement. Households can be sent to a twelve month private sector tenancy without the local authority needing their agreement. This would constitute discharge of the homelessness duty.

Given the housing benefit cap introduced as part of the welfare reform agenda, local authorities in areas of high housing costs face a challenge. There are few, if any, properties in their local private sector that are affordable to homeless households.

So local authorities have been looking further afield to find properties at rents that will be affordable, given housing benefit restrictions. Homeless households could face relocating by hundreds of miles to secure suitable independent accommodation. London boroughs are reported to be in negotiations with authorities in areas including Birmingham, Nottingham, Manchester and Merthyr Tydfil.

Yet, the Housing Minister has made public pronouncements that there is no reason for local authorities to send people hundreds of miles for rehousing. To do so would undermine family and support networks, disrupt children’s schooling, and break established connections with other public services such as child protection. Ministerial statements insist that homeless households being housed in the private rented sector should to be housed locally. Indeed, it is recognised that local authorities deciding to house homeless households at great distance leave themselves open to challenge via judicial review.

Here, as in many other areas of policy, the Government is being more than a little disingenuous. Ministers know they have placed many local authorities in an invidious position. It will simply not be possible for some local authorities to square the circle.

In fact, the lack of transparency over the government’s underlying agenda appears to go further. It seems that departmental officials are briefing local authorities that to realise the government’s objectives fully they should actively be seeking to send homeless households out of area. This will free up social housing for “genuinely” deserving households who are judged to be making a particularly valuable contribution to the area. This is about opening up more social housing to those in low paid work or who volunteer in the community or tenants who can demonstrate good behaviour. A report in the Guardian suggests that the department is also briefing local authorities on how to pursue this agenda while minimising the risk of being judicially reviewed.

Spatial segregation would not be an unforeseen and unfortunate side effect of this policy. It is being actively promoted.

This strand of policy thinking has been developing since the late period of New Labour, but it looks like 9th November heralded the arrival of the final piece of the puzzle. It provides a key tool for delivering on the agenda. And the Government seeks to bolster its position by reheating all the old chestnuts about people using the homelessness route strategically to jump the queue for social housing.

There is a suggestion that the Government’s underlying objective is to make the statutory homelessness route so unattractive that eventually no one pursues it.

Access to social housing has always been shaped by a tension between need and suitability. Until the 1960s, access to social housing depended heavily upon assessments of households’ moral desert judged through indicators such as housekeeping standards. The housing visitor was not necessarily welcome. The subjective and discriminatory nature of these assessments was deemed to be unacceptable. They were replaced with the more objective – but of course never fully objective – assessments of need that have evolved into the system as it is today.

The fear is that the reshaping of social housing allocations policy returns us to a system in which access is based upon frontline officers’ discretionary decision-making. The risk of discrimination and disadvantage is self-evident. In the 1970s we moved beyond such a system. But now we are winding the clock back to an earlier, less enlightened era.

This is just one area, among many, in which the Government is intent on systematically unpicking the fabric of the welfare state. It spends time on ill-conceived policies addressing the symptoms of the problem, rather than effective policies addressing the causes.

Are you proud to be party to that? I can’t honestly say that I am.

* Alex Marsh is Professor of Public Policy at the University of Bristol, a Member of Bristol North Liberal Democrats, and blogs at www.alexsarchives.org

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9 Comments

  • Andrew Suffield 12th Nov '12 - 3:34pm

    Ministers know they have placed many local authorities in an invidious position. It will simply not be possible for some local authorities to square the circle.

    Which is no more true now than it was before. What has changed is that instead of simply failing to house people, as they currently do, the authority can house them somewhere else – and be expected to do so.

    As for any local authority that sends people away needlessly – these are not unelected bureaucrats, they’re councillors who have the authority, responsibility, and electoral accountability to make such decisions. If people really think that what councillors are doing is wrong then it should not be hard to replace them. (Personally, I think this is going to be a case-by-case issue)

    It seems that departmental officials are briefing local authorities that to realise the government’s objectives fully they should actively be seeking to send homeless households out of area.

    Citation needed.

    Is it a change we can be proud of?

    Making councillors responsible for this? Yes. In the hands of central government, it is very hard to get anything done about specific decisions, and the system can be changed at whim by Whitehall. Pushing it down to the council level is exactly the right thing to be doing.

    Your argument is that it is wrong for this power to be devolved to councillors because they might use it to do something you think is wrong. I am wholly opposed to this kind of “but we can’t let councillors make the decision, they might make the WRONG decision” thinking, as is the party.

    As for the central government’s objectives, they are completely irrelevant. The decision will be made by your councillors, exclusively. The responsibility rests with your councillors, exclusively. It does not matter what Whitehall’s opinion is. There might be one councillor somewhere who might be inclined to listen to them, but based on all the councillors I’ve met over the years, I doubt there’s two.

  • I suspect the Liberal Democrats will not take issue with this {until} the penny drops and they come to the realisation that many of the affected families who are pushed out of their communities, might just end up in what are considered Liberal strongholds or target seats.

    Once they realise their target seats have had a sudden influx of these potential abandoned and uprooted people who will certainly never vote for party that’s in government, I suspect the Liberal Democrats will then start protesting loudly.

  • Yes. And if I remember correctly it was a Liberal Party M.P. Stephen Ross (Isle of Wight) who sponsored the Housing (Homeless Persons) Act which first introdeced this Statutory Responsibility……..

  • Andrew Suffield 12th Nov '12 - 6:31pm

    With respect, it is more true now than it was in the past because (i) the social housing stock continues to be depleted, particularly now that RTB2 is delivering substantial discounts on the pretence that like-for-like replacement is possible and (ii) the limits on LHA mean that fewer properties in high cost localities are affordable, and that will become increasingly so as the LHA lags further behind prevailing rents.

    Now perhaps if you could explain what this has got to do with the Localism Act?

    My point was more that if we think local authorities have been making these decisions with one hand tied behind their back in the past they are now making the decision with both hands tied behind their back.

    How exactly does letting the council make the decision reduce their power?

    “Citation needed” – That is the point of the Guardian article.

    I can find no passage in this article which supports your claims of telling councils that they should be “actively be seeking to send homeless households out of area”. Neither does there appear to be anything like that in the briefing paper linked from the other article you mention. The closest it comes is where it suggests that councils should ensure they have sufficient stock of private accommodation, and if that cannot be sourced locally, they would (obviously) have to look further afield. Perhaps you could be more specific?

    And we may differ in our experience of how much oversight of allocation decisions councillors have in practice.

    Councillors have full oversight and authority to change policy on these decisions in some form (either directly by a portfolio holder or by decision of the council as a whole – it varies). If your council is declining to engage in this then it’s because they know what the officers are doing, think it’ll be unpopular, and are trying to shift the blame by washing their hands of the decision. They’re still the ones with the authority and responsibility, and you should be holding them to account for this sort of sleazy endorsement-at-a-distance.

  • Berni Millam 13th Nov '12 - 3:38pm

    Am I Proud? No I am not .

    I suggest you have a look at the Face Book page Anti bedroom tax, Read the stories of their fears, their anguish, their disabilites . Then come back and tell me your proud of what we are doing to these people because I am certainly not proud. Infact I am very near to tearing up my membership. What has happened to Lib Dem who used to stand up for the poorest in society? Have we gone too far to the right and forgotten what we stand for; if you have may I suggest you read your membership cards.

    I have noticed someone has posted this article on the Anti Bedroom Tax, Have a look and see what people think of our party now. Next time you knock on social housing doors wanting their vote. Look them in the eye and tell them your proud for helping to making them homeless.

  • Andrew Suffield 13th Nov '12 - 10:08pm

    What has happened to Lib Dem who used to stand up for the poorest in society?

    The cap is £26k/year – that’s just under the median income. We’re not talking about the poorest in society. We’re talking about the richest 50%.

    And it still hasn’t got anything to do with the Localism Act.

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