Emergency motion: speak out on council housing

We are unique amongst the main political parties in having a democratic internal structure.   This weekend is our opportunity, denied to both Labour and Tory members, to decide the future of our party and proclaim what it means to be a Liberal Democrat.

In addition to major policy announcements, there are six possible emergency motions listed in Conference Extra.  Only one of these will be chosen for debate on Wednesday morning, following a ballot of conference attendees on Sunday.

Bermondsey and Old Southwark have submitted one of these emergency motions, and it is not without controversy.  It is in direct response to comments made by Prime Minister David Cameron on 3rd August, when he floated the idea of fixed term tenancies for council housing.

This is a superficially appealing idea. Millionaires should not be occupying valuable social housing stock when 1.7 million families are languishing on waiting lists.  However, not only will fixed term tenancies have little effect on housing availability, they will also have serious negative effects on community cohesion. 

Only 5% of households living in council housing have combined earnings of over £30,000.  So only a tiny minority of homes would be freed if wealthier residents were compelled to move on after a fixed term tenancy ended.   71% have a combined earning of less than £15,000.
If the minority of tenants who earn a decent wage are forced to leave, then you create a cycle of deprivation where only the very poor live on council estates.  This removes role models for local youngsters to look up to, and can lead to the severing of family ties.

Opposition against fixed term tenancies has come from the Chartered Institute of Housing, the National Housing Federation, and even some Tory MPs (including Nadine Dorries, one of the few to have grown up in a council flat).

Make no mistake; there is a serious lack of affordable housing in this country.  But fixed-term tenancies are not the solution. The coalition government needs to do what Labour did not, and build more homes.
We must show the lead on this issue.  We must politely but firmly send a message to the Prime Minister that fixed term tenancies are not the way forward.  We need to remind voters why Liberal Democrat participation in the coalition is so important for the country.  It is partly a question of politics (almost a quarter of Liberal Democrat MPs have an above average number of social housing tenants).  But most importantly, it is about evidence-based policy.

Decent housing is a basic social and economic human right.  Sadly, the coalition agreement had too little to say on it.  It is vital that we fill that gap. 

Emergency Motion on Fixed-Term Tenancies for Council Housing

Conference notes the comments made by the Prime Minister on the 3rd August 2010, with regard to proposals for fixed-term tenancies for council housing. 

Conference recognises the chronic shortage of affordable homes and regrets the lack of progress made by the previous Labour government in this area, with over 1.8 million households currently on housing waiting lists.

Conference notes that less than 20% of council tenants earn an above average wage and that fixed-term tenancies would lead to a lack of incentive for council tenants to work hard and earn more for their families.

Conference affirms the positive effects of secure tenancies in improving social cohesion, supporting family networks and providing stability. 
Conference believes that forcing successful families to leave will lead to a revolving door that concentrates poverty and vulnerability, with all of society paying for this policy.

Conference proposes that the solution to the current shortage of social housing is to increase the building of affordable homes.

Conference calls on the coalition government to:

1.       Rule out removing secure tenancies for current and future council tenants.

2.       Investigate alternative ways of managing occupancies when circumstances change, such as different levels of rent.

3.       Urgently investigate ways to fund an increase in the building of social housing, either by local authorities or housing associations.

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26 Comments

  • patrick murray 16th Sep '10 - 4:22pm

    ordinarily i would of course support a motion on building more housing (as people who know me would expect!)

    however this is a very competitive list of motions. given the reaction to cameron’s comments, i’m not sure fixed term tenancies will be on the cards soon. the issue of building more affordable homes is crucial, but if we are to ensure it happens we need to offer up how. i’d rather see a wide-ranging motion at spring conference, calling for right-to-invest to replace right to buy, housing benefit tapering, review of some greenbelt in areas of high demand and, of course, the initial investment to build homes.

    that is not to say this is not a good motion, but we need to do more and i’d like to see a more comprehensive strategy that tackles those issues around the use of the private sector and temporary accomodation as i reckon building more houses could end the benefit trap for many and get people back into work, and probably halve the housing benefit bill nationally.

    in contrast my view is that the motion on human trafficking is the one that is the most key at the moment. cameron said at pmqs this week we wouldn’t sign up, so unless we pass a motion at this conference i can’t see it happening at all, whereas i think we will get future opportunities to sort out a more comprehensive strategy on housing.

    if we don’t sign up to the new directive we can’t shape it, and we will harm efforts to protect victims and work internationally to stop trafficking. i think, right at this moment, that protecting such basic human rights is vital and that the motion on human trafficking is what will have the biggest impact on coalition policy.

  • Hmm … whilst I accept many of your points, how is “The coalition government needs to do what Labour did not, and build more homes.” consistent with the green credentials of the Liberal Democrats? The problem is that all these new homes plus associated roads, places of employment, shops, utilities and other essential infrastructure require the concreting over and destruction of ever more countryside, which means less agricultural land on which to grow food (for increasing numbers of people), less space and habitat for wildlife, less unspoilt landscape, and so on. And, depressingly, there is no end in sight to this problem – our population needing to be housed just grows and grows. The real problem in this country (and indeed globally) is NOT a shortage of homes, it is an excess of people! Where is the Conference motion that addresses this most fundamental of problems? Any remotely ‘green’ party should not bury its head in the sand on this issue.

  • vince thurnell 16th Sep '10 - 5:15pm

    Alix, I earn £32,000 a year, my wife earns £10,000 a year. I have lived in my council house for 14 years and have brought 3 children up in it. I am 44 years of age and have no intention of buying a house, firstly because i am extremely happy where i am and secondly because i cannot afford it. Why should i be forced to move out of my family home just because i now earn above £30,000. It seems to me that a policy of fixed tenancies is nothing more than rounding up the poor and keeping them all in one area out of the sight of everyone else. That is something i would expect from the tory party but when it seems that some lib dems agree with it i really start to wonder what is happening to the lib dem party.

  • Mr Clegg will go with Mr Cameron, no mistake about that. What you think and what I think are irrelevant, that’s why I am not supporting the LibDems any longer, after over 25 years of helping out at grass roots level. And I’m not the only one.

  • vince thurnell 16th Sep '10 - 6:21pm

    Alix, why should i rent when i have lived in the house i am currently in for the last 14 years, my children all go to the local school and have lived on the estate from the day they were born. Now because im on a modest income (which in Essex is all £32,000 is ) and im no longer classed as poor i am supposed to pack up and move out whereas joe bloggs up the street who earns more than me and could afford to buy his house with a 40% discount stays where he is.

    As for the problem of the poor being kept in one area already being there, thats not quite true as most building projects now have to build a certain amount of social housing. Its not enough and more houses need to be built but if you really can’t see the problem with turfing people out of houses they’ve lived in for years and just telling them ‘if you don’t want to buy just go and rent in the private sector somewhere’ you obviously have no grasp of reality when it comes to not being able to afford your own house as i was many years ago when i was lucky enough to get a council house.

  • >Conference proposes that the solution to the current shortage of social housing is to increase the building of affordable homes.

    Fine as far as it goes – although I wonder where all these homes can be built (and who’ll fund it).
    But not a lot of point building more if you have still have right to buy, which has already taken all the best housing stock out of the social sector.

    >. Urgently investigate ways to fund an increase in the building of social housing, either by local authorities or housing associations.

    Just curiosity: any figures on how many councils still control social housing? All the ones round here have either shifted it to housing associations or are in the process of doing so.

  • @Terry: We don’t need to build homes on green belt at all. There’s significant room to be found in brown field regeneration, the reconstruction of failed estate projects and building up into apartments instead of out.

  • patrick murray 16th Sep '10 - 6:52pm

    @thomas

    simply not true. whilst housing should obviously go on brownfield sites first, there are many areas in the south east, particularly, which have horrendous housing needs and hardly any brownfield sites. my old hometown, oxford, is a classic example. without some review of greenbelt land the poorer residents of the city will either be forced out or live in miserable conditions. your comment shows that you have little understanding of the true scale of housing need, or the conditions in which many cities and urban areas find themselves.

  • Patrick Murray talks sense on this, as ever.

  • vince thurnell 16th Sep '10 - 8:32pm

    Alix, So what you’re advocating then is the wholesale removal of people out of houses they have lived in for many years ?. At 44 im too old to get a mortgage and so then only option for me is to rent privately which will mean form somewhere i have to find a deposit of over a £1000 and see my rent increase by probably around £200 a month. We just about make ends meet now because despite our income being £42000 we have to pay taxes on that. Our spare income at the moment is around £60 a week which would now be swallowed up by the additional rent we would have to pay.
    What i would actually be better off doing really is telling my wife to give up work and i will stop performing overtime so we would then be back under the £30,000 threshold and would be able to stay where we are, now that really is an incentive for people isn’t it ?.

  • @vince thurnell

    You appear to be wasting your breath. Alix it seems, is on a different planet to the rest of us. The logic of your argument is plain for all to see. Apparently the right-to-buy policy is being reviewed to appease Lib Dems. If, as I suspect, Alix is typical, appeasement isn’t necessary.

  • Andrew Suffield 16th Sep '10 - 11:17pm

    At 44 im too old to get a mortgage

    Are not.

    Bottom line is, you want more stuff than people who have less money than you get. Your argument is neither more nor less than a statement that you feel entitled to something. There’s nothing strictly wrong with that, but it’s a very Tory attitude to politics and you’ll not find much sympathy for it here.

  • @Patrick Murray: Then build up and produce apartments instead of houses. Or embark on a program of tax incentives to encourage buisinesses to invest in the midlands and north so that people can get a job up here where there are brownfields aplenty.
    @Vince: Council housing is supposed to be a benefit for the poorest in society, though. If you arent among them then why would you continue to get the benefit?

  • patrick murray 17th Sep '10 - 7:21am

    @ thomas

    i agree on the idea of trying to spread out demand by lib dem policies such as high speed rail and returning business rates to local control, thereby allowing the tax incentives you refer to. however, all developers have been building and councils have been getting through s106 agreements is poorly built flats. the reality is that in some places you would have to turn everything into tower blocks, which have pretty much been a disaster. in addition the figure that has been provided in this article is of families, the real number of people on the various lists is 4.5m nationally. trying to house 1.8m families in flats would be a disaster – so many people’s lives are destroyed by chronic overcrowding in two bed flats. i lost count of the number of 5-6 bed households crammed into flats i had to deal with as cabinet member for housing – the effect on the lives of the inhabitants was stark. the children developed serious psychological and physical health problems and often ended up waiting for 5-10 years and by the time they got a move it was too late. we need family houses as well, and we need the land to build them. i am not disagreeing that we should seek to build on brownfield first, or take the pressure off by trying to spread demand, but the reality is that there are still some areas which have a significant need that can not be accomodated simply through these measures.

    @tim leunig thanks! fwiw i think i may have been one of the only people who actually bothered to read your policy exchange report from a couple of years ago and agreed with much of it. seems to me a lot of the criticism was from people who didn’t actually bother to find out why you came to the conclusions you did, but i guess that’s always the way with these things.

  • Punctuation Cop 17th Sep '10 - 8:43am

    Alix, m’dear, you’re on a “different planet” because you dared to fail to massively criticise Lib Dem ministers for an idea that David Cameron floated, on an issue that’s hugely complicated but urgently needs sorting ;o)

    Over the last few months I’ve discovered that there are plenty of people who just want to rant about “betrayal” but seem unwilling to actually engage with any of the arguments. And if you dare suggest that the Govt may be doing something right (or indeed, not right, just not amazingly evil and wrong) you’re an awful, terrible person.

    Clearly this issue is not clear cut, but the problems of lack of social housing and access to that social housing are plain to see. The current system doesn’t work.

    My mother, who earns nothing but the benefits she is entitled to (which is no bed of roses, but enough to get by) following a massive heart attack, is a “high priority” for social housing. She has now been on the list for 6 months and has no idea when a suitable property will come up. She’s in private rented, after losing her house when she went bankrupt – she was self employed before her heart attack and now can’t work — and is currently thinking she’s going to have to enter another private rental agreement – not easy when you’re “DSS”. Now you tell me there isn’t a problem with the current picture.

  • Andrew Duffield 17th Sep '10 - 8:56am

    Conference notes the disquiet felt by many Liberal Democrats at aspects of the coalition’s economic measures, in particular the reduction in public services generally and the increase in tax, especially VAT, which has not been switched to richer taxpayers as effectively as we would have wished.

    Conference notes that Social Housing Grant cuts and Housing Benefit capping, in the pipeline, are highly likely to result in an almost complete halt to building of new affordable housing, unless balanced by incentives to release land.

    However we further note that many commentators here are now urging the government to follow the lead of Governments elsewhere (Australia, Ireland) and introduce land value taxation (LVT) as part of their economic recovery package, recognising that land values represent a large source of unearned wealth and so LVT would be a ‘fair’ tax; and that one effect of the tax is to encourage economic activity, especially the redevelopment of vacant, derelict and under-used urban land and buildings, much of which is still exempt of any business rates.

    This conference therefore urges Liberal Democrats in government to make a strong case for the introduction of a significant measure of LVT on non-residential urban land (which is already Party policy) at the earliest opportunity, in particular to stimulate the construction of more affordable housing.

  • The list of emergency motions is very competitive.

    What makes our motion different is the urgency. We must make it clear to David Cameron and Grant Shapps that this is not a solution to the housing crisis, but will make matters worse on some estates.

    If we don’t make a loud noise at conference then the policy will be enacted, to the detriment of urban communities.

    It is difficult to see what measures there are for encouraging home building, but this is the only solution to the housing crisis.

  • patrick murray 17th Sep '10 - 11:57am

    @ben

    personally i don’t believe fixed term tenancies are on the agenda, there was enough noise over the summer to put that ridiculousness to bed. in contrast cameron was pretty clear at pmqs on trafficking, and i think that a basic moral issue of human rights.

    also, personally, i’m unconvinced about the variable rents point as i can see that being a beaurocratic nightmare and is not the best way to encourage aspiration. right to invest would be much better and would not penalise successful tenants. if you rent privately your rent doesn’t go up when you get a pay raise, but as you become more successful you can buy a house. should be the same basic process, whereby if tenants do well they can save up equity against their home and cash it out if/when they want to buy somewhere privately.

    however obviously agree on the house building point…

    if it did get through maybe an amendment could be placed on the last bullet point on housebuilding to ensure that we beef up how we are going to get more housing and help those in need. don’t know if thats possible or not but here’s a suggestion. i’m sure others can add other ways to increase the supply of affordable housing.

    there are several points you could split that bullet point into. i would suggest replacing it with something like this:

    Embark on a comprehensive project to increase the supply of affordable housing by:

    1) replacing right to buy with right to invest across all social tenancies
    2) setting up a process by which areas of high need but little brownfield land may review and use green belt land for the building of affordable housing, possibly using community land auctions
    3) scrapping vat on brownfield development
    4) ensuring that local government, housing associations and the hca have the freedom and capital funds to build both new housing and the neccessary infrastructure

    Ensure economic growth is spread more widely across the country, alleviating pressure on high demand areas

    1) return business rates to local control
    2) reaffirm support for the creation of high speed rail

    Ensure those tenants in private sector and temporary accommodation are freed from the benefit trap and able to work by investigating housing benefit tapering

    Ensuring homeless citizens are able to access high quality services that increase opportunities and their confidence and skills by encouraging the voluntary sector and local government to bring forward a new programme of centres across the country focussed on increasing skills, opportunities and employment

    I could go on for hours about this stuff, but this is what I’m talking about getting – a comprehensive strategy rather than a vague aspiration that will be ignored.

  • This was a red herring to make us think we had modified the coalition with something that was never going to happen.

    Sorry but delegates should support the mothin on reforming the NHS.

    I always remeber there as being 2 emergancy motions in the past . If I’m is this the gradual erosion of party democracy in favour of ‘Policy announcements’

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