Opinion: Social housing – an unlikely new battleground?

In the weeks following the election the Coalition had very little to say about housing. The budget announced restrictions on the local housing allowance on the back of a narrative about needing to rein in the vast amounts being spent on multi-bedroom properties. We are yet to see what the consequences of this will be. But there is cause for concern.

In recent days housing has suddenly emerged as a new battleground, both inside and outside the Coalition. On Tuesday we had David Milliband invading LibDem territory with his advocacy of a Mansion Tax. On Wednesday we had pronouncements from David Cameron and Grant Shapps on future policy directions for social housing policy.

This is an unlikely battleground for two reasons. First, it is an area of policy in which, as Sara Bedford has recently pointed out, the Conservative stated in the run up to the election that they were not proposing change. In the light of previous experiences with schools and the NHS, however, we are perhaps rapidly coming to realise quite what sort weight should be placed on such commitments.

Second, social housing has for many years been something of a policy backwater: vitally important to those affected, but not really the stuff that attracts front page headlines. Yet, the economic downturn and problems in the private housing market have resulted in rising waiting lists for social housing and more people with a personal interest in access to affordable housing.

So we have witnessed trailers for a series of policies.

Grant Shapps is continuing to press his ideas for national mobility schemes – The Freedom Pass and a new National Home Swap database – and has mooted the possibility of a “right to move” for social tenants, although this is currently “just an idea”.

Mobility schemes are a good thing. But their impact upon the social housing sector is always going to be modest. Low geographical mobility in social housing is not a major cause of worklessness among social tenants, for example. More important is the availability and security of the sort of jobs for which social tenants are qualified. Long distance mobility to access a relatively low skilled insecure job, while giving up your local social and family support networks, is a strategy that is only ever going to appeal to the few.

David Cameron, in contrast, has taken on “the biggy” by re-starting the conversation on security of tenure, even though his statements now appear not to qualify as Coalition policy.

It is not so long ago that John Hills’ report for the previous government tried to steer away from the suggestion that reducing security of tenure would deal meaningfully with problems facing social housing . Professor Hills argued for social landlords to be allowed to make a more varied offer to prospective tenants, tailored to their circumstances and needs.

The arguments here are complex and the priorities to be reconciled are incompatible. They are fundamentally about whose welfare we value more. Families in overcrowded substandard accommodation ‘deserve’ and are entitled to social housing that better suits their needs.

Important arguments around adequate housing, child development and lifetime opportunities can be invoked. Older people live in properties which are larger than they currently require, but which have been their family home for decades. Such long-standing residents can often provide stability, local social capital and community leadership in areas characterised by a high turnover of households and weak social ties.

Forcing people to leave social housing when they no longer ‘need’ it will result in further concentrations of poverty in the social rented sector. It will set up incentives against seeking to improve one’s circumstances – if it means risking one’s home. New structures to prevent abuse – the application of protection from eviction legislation to the social sector – would need to be put in place.

One can see a new branch of the Judicial Review industry opening up. Reducing security of tenure and expecting people to move out when they are assessed as no longer needing their current home could bring us squarely into Article 8 – Right to respect for Private and Family Life – territory.

The issue of access to the existing stock of social housing is important: it crystallizes the values of a society. It fundamentally shapes society and the sustainability of neighbourhoods and communities. But, we shouldn’t get distracted by rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic.

The more pressing housing question is where new affordable housing is going to come from in an era of fiscal austerity coupled with a new era of devolved planned, while avoiding a descent into local exclusionism and NIMBYism.

Alex is a Lib Dem supporter and Professor of Public Policy at the University of Bristol

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16 Comments

  • Marquis Holmstreau 6th Aug '10 - 2:29pm

    Nobody should ever be forced out of their home! If incentives can be offered and are accpeted then so be it.

  • Ben Johnson 6th Aug '10 - 2:29pm

    You hit on the key to this problem in your final paragraph – we need to build more housing!

    It’s all very well telling people to leave social housing once they earn a decent income. But where are they going to move to? Housing is very scarce, especially in London.

  • Would the idea Cameron ‘floated’ mean the end to right to buy? It would have to, surely. if you are in a position to buy a house then it can be said that you are not in need of social housing. And if this is the case doesn’t it mean that one rung of the property ladder is being removed from those in social housing?

  • I am confused – how does the Shapps scheme differ from the current National Mobility Scheme (in place in one form or another for years?). It seems intellectually dishonest to suggest something is “new” if you are just proposing one or two new ideas at the edges. Clearly Alex is very well informed here. Perhaps he could enlighten us?

  • Alex – I think you understate the social benefits of non-work-related mobility. I have an (owner occupier) friend who recently moved to be near her daughter, who had just had a child. That move would have been much harder had she been a social housing tenant, but it is a move that has helped her, and her daughter, as well as the child. That is why I wrote “Right to Move” (Policy Exchange) which has gone from being a campaign pledge included in “In touch” leaflets in the Norwich by-election, to “just an idea”.

    I can see the attraction (as well as the problems) of increasing rents for those social tenants who are affluent, but it is very hard to see any attraction of fixed tenures over market rents for affluent people in social housing.

    As ever, more building is the most necessary policy

  • Andrew Duffield 6th Aug '10 - 6:29pm

    “As ever, more building is the most necessary policy”

    No. As ever, LVT is the most necessary policy. More building – and more efficient use of existing (often empty) buildings would be the automatic and beneficial consequence. We don’t need more social housing to provide a sticking plaster for the poor; we need a progressive property tax regime to incentivise the occupation of underused sites, driving down rents and making all homes much more affordable in the process. This is Lib Dem policy (albeit ‘in the longer term’)!

  • We urgently need a reform of private letting along continental lines. There has to be a way for renters in the private market to achive relative security of tenure (within reason), and there have to be some rules concerning acceptable reasons for rent rises (i.e. tenants fixing up their rental property should not have to fear a rent rise!). If renting in the private market provided people with more security and fairness, there might be fewer people who believe that social housing is their only viable option.

    I remain very dismayed about the fact that politicians are apparently not willing to consider these issues properly. I think this is due to the (increasingly false) notion that renting is just a short stop-gap solution before people buy their own property anyway. With house prices as they are, renting is increasingly a concern for the middle class and middle aged, including people with families, too. I guess we’ll have to hope that one day there will finally be votes in doing something about the fact that Britian’s laws concerning private letting are not fit for purpose.

    To anybody renting in the private market the many concerns now expressed that it is unacceptable that people may be faced with losing their home seem like a distant utopia. There are plenty of us who don’t have, and may never have, the luxury of this kind of security. I’d wish to see just a fraction of the energy and outrage currently expressed over social housing invested in the scandalous conditions private renters have to deal with.

  • When housing benefits and other cuts bite and about 750,000 people will be looking at downsizing their homes, not to mention the people looking at losing their jobs and their homes as a consequence – who or what will be the scapegoat for the even bigger housing crisis – council tenants and/or small private landlords. Meanwhile who is ‘consulting’ on these new policies about council house tenure and who is pointing the finger at the scapegoat, setting one section of poor non home owners against another even poorer group; a millionaire with a taxpayer subsidised second and third home who doesn’t want to increase inheritance tax or any other tax on rich people’s property and belongs to a party whose flagship policy used to be RTB and is against growing social housing provision. This is beyond cynical.

  • Patrick Smith 7th Aug '10 - 10:49pm

    I agree with Nick ! That Local Authorities should be able to borrow on their own assets to build new social housing and that homes sold under `The Right to Buy’ are replaced locally and people involved in planning by giving power back to local communities’ -from `The time has come for a new alignment of progressive politics’.

  • Why are you even talking about this. Your government has ensured that the agenda is about how we make things more difficult for those who have the least while they ensure that bankers etc are making their usual massive bonuses. While you are talking about this they are getting on with the real work of taking the little bit that poor people have away from them. And will Vince Cable please try to see beyond the tax system. The cuts in Social Care, support, welfare etc that are coming will hit the very poorest in society. I hope you are proud of your governemtn. I hope that you are finally getting what you came into politics for. To hurt the least able

  • Matthew Huntbach 9th Aug '10 - 11:05am

    I find the claim that social housing is an “unlikely battleground” is astonishing. If it is, it shows just how much politicians and the media are out of touch with ordinary people. They may be rich enough to think housing is not an important issue, but with most of the country unable to afford to buy a home, or to rent one without massive subsidy which goes as pure profit to private individuals, it is quite obviously a HUGE issue. What could be a more basic issue than having a home? What could be a more important issue that the thing we spend more money on than anything else?

    The pumping up of money gained by owning property rather than by working and the cutting off of alternative forms of housing was a central theme in the Conservative governments of 1979-1997, and was not remedied by the following Labour governments. The lending-based boom this gave us was a major cause of the current financial crisis. Underneath, as we can see by the power over Capital Gains Tax, the Conservatve Party has as a major aim, indeed in some ways it is what the Conservative Party is all about, the defence of income gained by being already rich rather than by working. The “right-to-buy” of council housing, brought in without any plan for an alternative way of providing for housing needs, was intended to suck so many of the population into supposing that wealth was to be made by house-gambling rather than by working and enterprise, that it would be politically impossible to speak against it. The long-term consequences were inevitable, we are living in them now, but rich well-housed people can’t see them.

    Housing is one of those issues like global warming and dealing with much increased life-spans where we are stumbling to disaster but are paralysed when it comes to dealing with them because anything that would work involves sacrifice by the comfortable.

  • @Tim The piece does not mention non-work mobility. I agree that this can be very important. In a context where there is likely to be a significant reduction in formal social care (‘the Big Society’) it is going to be increasingly important for families to be able to move to provide inter-generational informal support, for example. The point was more that the lack of work-related mobility has been held up as an important byproducts of security of tenure. I don’t agree, and there are good labour market-based explanations for why it isn’t the central issue. That isn’t to say that mobility schemes aren’t a good thing. They are. But we have to keep a sense of perspective on what they are likely to deliver. Voluntary mobility is a good thing. The problem is coercion.

    @Tim13 The current thinking on mobility is not so much about changing the direction of policy but about enhancing and expanding (and reviving) existing schemes, as well as thinking about whether it would be good to create new rights to mobility which mean that the control over the process could shift more in favour of the tenant.

    It may well be that some LibDem responses to this ‘policy’ announcement have been an over-reaction because they didn’t listen to what Cameron actually said. He was clear that he stated that he was not talking about current tenants losing their homes. However, whether it is wise to assume that when the policy arrives it will protect existing tenants is a moot point. It could also be suggested that not everyone on his own side was listening very closely: http://bit.ly/bSM6f8

  • Bermondsey voter 13th Aug '10 - 11:40pm

    Social housing has for many years been a policy backwater…. Yes indeed and successive governments and political parties have failed to take the issue of the supply of low cost , affordable, social , council ( or whatever you want to call it!) housing seriously.
    So now we all have to participate in an entirely artificial and socially divisive competition for scant resources ( buy the buy, bankers under no obligation to participate). Is it any wonder that the electorate is so disillusioned with politicians? With over 90% of ‘social’ housing tenants earning less than 20k and with access to mortgages so restricted.. just how is this new fluid limited tenancy regime supposed to work. I don’t care who provides low cost housing.. providing it is what it says.. GENUINELY affordable, secure and of a decent quality. What is needed is the sort of political leadership shown after the second world war.. treat the issue as a national emergency.. ( it has been for the homeless for many years!) if you need to put up interim housing as a short term measure then have the balls to DO it.. not just talk about it. Creating an artificial competition to me is simply indicative of a intellectually bankrupt government, devoid of imagination and leadership and out of touch with the over 4 million on waiting lists. By the way, I have just read that the MOD budget is 22 billion. Astonishing!

  • If market rents are supposed to be the measure of new social rents god help us all. Market rents are many times over inflated and unaffordable, social housing needs to be protected. we all need a secure and decent home, some of us cannot afford this without social housing.
    private landlords are evil. they can up rent with little care about the repercussions this may have. the quality of life in the UK is falling sharp and without security of tenure, i see a big increase in mental health difficulties and social problems.
    the increase in population has increased demand for social housing and it will be a case of established tenants kicked out and newcomers to the country (based on need) In. How fair is this?

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