Social housing: a home for life?

None of us, especially those who are councillors, can fail to understand the huge crisis of social housing waiting lists. It’s not simply the homeless or those in desperate need of a decent home. Many families will never be able to afford to buy their own home, yet face many years in unsuitable and overcrowded accommodation because of a shortage of affordable homes to rent.  Currently social housing tenants are granted secure tenancies, not only for their lives, but often to pass onto their children. This continues regardless of the needs of future tenants. So would fixed-term tenancies be a fairer way to allocate the limited supply of cheap housing?

Certainly David Cameron seems to think so. Speaking in Birmingham yesterday, the Prime Minister said it makes sense for tenants to be given fixed-term deals in future – so they can be moved on if their circumstances change and those in most need can be housed.  After hearing from a mother living in overcrowded accommodation, he said:

There is a bigger question here, which is: how do we make sure that people are able to move through the housing chain? At the moment we have a system very much where, if you get a council house or an affordable house, it is yours forever and in some cases people actually hand them down to their children. And actually it ought to be about need. Your need has got greater … and yet there isn’t really the opportunity to move.”

But there is a question mark about whether, in future, should we be asking, actually, when you are given a council home, is it for fixed period, because maybe in five or 10 years you will be doing a different job and be better paid and you won’t need that home, you will be able to go into the private sector. Do we want to reform tenure to actually enable people to move through housing rather than seeing it as something that you either get – ‘great, I’ve got my council house’ – or you don’t get – ‘bad, I’m sleeping on a blow-up mattress’.

Cameron made it clear that he was not talking about changing the tenancies of existing tenants but, for future tenants, but his words have already upset many, after seeming to explicitly rule out such a move during the election campaign. The Conservative leader clashed with then housing minister John Healey, accusing him of running a ‘scare campaign’ about Conservative housing policy, saying  that the Conservative Party ‘believed in the importance of social housing and the security it provides’.

In an interview with Inside Housing, published a week before the general election, he said: ‘We support social housing, we will protect it, and we respect social tenants’ rights.’ A spokesperson for the Conservatives added that the party had ‘no policy to change the current or future security of tenure of tenants in social housing’.

But in talking only about moving people out of social housing when their income improves, is Cameron going against the coalition’s avowed policy of aiming to ‘make work pay’? Has he deliberately avoided the ‘elephant in the room’ of under occupation? Many older tenants are living in large council houses with gardens, alone or with a partner, whilst families with children are cramped into small, upper floor flats. Should the housing you enjoy for the majority of your life be based upon how lucky you were when at your most vulnerable?

The subject of secure tenancies for social tenants seems to have all the hallmarks of ‘head vs heart’.  Removing such security for new tenants would not free up any homes for many years and may well prove counter-productive in terms of community cohesion. But is it one that the government should be addressing whilst it has the chance?

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  • “…‘We support social housing, we will protect it, and we respect social tenants’ rights.’ A spokesperson for the Conservatives added that the party had ‘no policy to change the current or future security of tenure of tenants in social housing’.

    ….. is Cameron going against the coalition’s avowed policy of aiming to ‘make work pay’? Has he deliberately avoided the ‘elephant in the room’ of under occupation? ….. Should the housing you enjoy for the majority of your life be based upon how lucky you were when at your most vulnerable?

    ….. Removing such security for new tenants would not free up any homes for many years and may well prove counter-productive in terms of community cohesion. But is it one that the government should be addressing whilst it has the chance?”

    Well, Sara, you wrote the blog: what do you think?

    Or is openly opposing Tory policy now unthinkable among Lib Dems?

  • Cameron asking the question whether people should actually be able to pass on their family home to their children and should make it available to people with more social need? Can we tax your house Dave so people with more need than you can get a house????

  • David Morton 4th Aug '10 - 9:50am

    So every five years or so you’ll have to reapply for your house meaning (a) we’ll build an incentive to be as poor and desperate as possible at the appropriate time (b) an increase in means testing (c) state officials given the power to “evict” people (d) the inevitable appeals process with associated “advice” and ” litigation” industries attached as people fight for their homes. (e) a further reinforcement of the “Anti Social Housing” motif whereby estates become ghettos for those with problems. (f) denuding estates and communities of social capital and civic leadership as residents with spare social capacity are forced out because they are “too good” (g) building additional population turnover into areas which often suffer from transiance at the best of times.

  • The interesting thing about this post is that Sara is unwilling to attack Tory policy…

    Six months ago any Lib Dem would have been “outraged” at this u-turn and lie and actual policy from the Tories.

    No she cannot bring herself to go beyond a few questions, but is unable to provide any definite answers or challenge to the Tories.

    Lib Dems de-fanged…. (assuming they ever had any of course)…

  • Richard Hill 4th Aug '10 - 10:57am

    I think Fixed term deals is a great idea. To me the state should provide a safety net, not once the state takes you on yoy will be alright for life. There would then always a bit of pressure on the tenant to sort out their own thing. It would remove thought patterns like one of the ones young girls have “if I have a baby I will get a house and have a base income for the future”. Psycologicaly I think it would have an impact on a lot of people which in the long run would be for the good. Another pssible thought pattern is “lets move to Britian they give people houses there”. No doubt there will be lots of resistance to this idea and it would have to be handeled very carefully, people geting freebies tend to be very resistant to change.

  • Have to agree with most people who’ve responded.

    It is making me queasy that Lib Dems refuse to criticise Tory policy. It’s bad enough that Clegg has shifted the party to the right of Thatcher – but to partner that with a party decision to lie back and think of England as it’s happening is just bizarre.

    To copy the style – What has Clegg done?

    This Social Housing policy is frightening. It will create ghetto’s full of the underclass, de-stimulate any incentive to work, prevent future Social Housing building projects and further demonise those who live in such accommodation.

    Is there any more proof needed that by ideologically merging with the Tories so much the Lib Dem party has effectively killed itself?

  • @Richard Hill

    It would remove thought patterns like one of the ones young girls have “if I have a baby I will get a house and have a base income for the future”

    “lets move to Britian they give people houses there”

    “people geting freebies tend to be very resistant to change.”

    Liberal Conspiracy has an article you should read, lest you descend further into the Right-wing Hell-hole you’re running into…

  • And while this becomes the news it give ms may an excuse to sneak this little gem out.

  • This is a move to complete the transformation of council housing from being both provision of housing to the worst off and a choice made by people with lower but secure incomes to move into either bought or rented accomodation, as it was when I grew up on a council estate in the 70’s, to one where living in rented council accomodation is considered a sign of failure. The sale of council houses in the 1980’s had a twin effect. One was to seriously reduce the available accomodation to the poorest. The other was, as so much of the policy in the 1980’s, to stigmatise those who lived in rented council accomodation. Council tenants, it is now proposed, are to be means tested before they will be allowed to continue their tenancy. The completion of the move from socially provided rented housing to ghetto will be complete. As with the rest of the coalitions policy on social provision of services: schools, health care, tax credits, child benefit, pupil premiums, etc. the emphasis is on saftey nets for providing the very poor with the bare minimum rather than equality and fairness.
    This policy and your article make assumptions that should not enter the head of any individual concerned to create a fair and just society. The ‘elephant in the room’ as you put it of under occupation and that the government should be hard-headed about this while it has the chance somewhat betrays your actual position on these matters. You appear to believe that people in rented accomodation should not be entitled to any form of security into their old age. If you choose to rent you have to accept as part of the contract that we can take you out of your family home and put you in a box in your old age. What is more we will do this whilst being outraged at the notion that those who took the profitable option of buying might not get to hand on, intact, their homes to their children when they have had to be accomodated in care homes for the last few years of their life.
    The whole issue of social housing is not head v’s heart, it is entirely ideological. The ideology of the coalition proposals being that if you are poor it is your own fault for not ‘doing the right thing’, your poverty is not an effect of social injustice, it is a lifestyle choice and you have no right to expect equal respect to those who have chosen to be wealthier than you.
    The problem that needs to be solved is not freeing up existing social housing, it is providing more social housing and changing the mindset of our nation into one that accepts renting accomodation as being as valid a social choice as buying, including renting from the council.
    My mother still lives in the council house she brought up her children in, the one where her husband died (whilst making use of the social care that the NHS white paper proposes taking away from those who don’t take private voluntary insurance). My parents bought their house under the right to buy of the 1980’s because it was significantly cheaper to buy. If it they hadn’t been bribed into buying they would have happily continued to rent and then return the asset to the council. Your ‘elephant in the room’ suggests that if she had continue to rent we should kick her out and give her house to someone else.
    “Should the housing you enjoy for the majority of your life be based upon how lucky you were when at your most vulnerable?” is quite frankly an appalling question for a Liberal to ask. I live in a house that is now worth three times what I paid for it ten years ago, its rise in value will probably allow me to have a free choice of where I live for the rest of my life, presumably it is perfectly reasonable for me to enjoy the housing I secured when I was very comfortable and secure as I continue to be. Vulnerable people are presumably not entitled to good fortune in your world.
    The solution is to take luck out of it and for councils to provide sufficient high quality rented accomodation in every community. Council housing in the 1970’s was not about vulnerability at all in many communities, it was a choice. It was also available for the vulnerable because there was a wider social stake in it. Restricting it to nothing more than a safety net for those considered social failures or parasites has removed the social stake in it from the wider society and made it broadly socially unacceptable to provide high quality affordable social housing. Ultimately this has led to a situation where someone can consider themselves to be progressive in their politics whilst asking if it is legitimate to allow an individual to enjoy a proper home if they are poor.

  • charliechops1 4th Aug '10 - 12:38pm

    One feature of The Coalition is that we have a silly policy a day and someone to defend it.. I was brought up in a Council house. We were not poor and neither we were rich. A feature of all lifetime earnings is that at a certain point they decine – usually when the male wage earner cannot physically work in the way he could when a young man. My parents would not have taken kindly to being told to move on only to qualify for housing assistance a few years later. After all a house is a home. As I understand it David Cameron is still taking some £25, 000 a year in parliamentary expenses for his second home. Move over David – and don’t grumble – you could pay for your own home. After all we are all in this together.

  • Matthew Huntbach 4th Aug '10 - 1:29pm

    JRC, I have considerable doubts about these proposals, but when you write “The ideology of the coalition proposals being that if you are poor it is your own fault for not ‘doing the right thing’, your poverty is not an effect of social injustice, it is a lifestyle choice and you have no right to expect equal respect to those who have chosen to be wealthier than you” you really ought to consider more the real issues and the world we live in, rather than an idealised world where the 1980s sale of council housing never happened.

    A council house is an enormously valuable asset, and I know from my time as a councillor for a council-estate ward, as well as continuing contact with the council estate where I grew up, that there is a real reason to be concerned that someone who qualifies for a council house allocation due to some very temporary problem gets it for life and gets it ahead of someone who has a long-term need for such housing but does not have the urgent problem that would allow for housing under the homelessness legislation. The Homeless Persons Act was meant to provide a safety net, it was never designed to be what it has become – the main way council housing gets allocated – as a result there are considerable injustices in allocation. I too am split when I see so many big family council houses occupied by elderly people who don’t need all those bedrooms, while families who do need them are told, no, they will never get a council house allocation as e.g. five kids in a two-bedroom flat is a roof over your head, so you will never qualify as homeless and there aren’t enough council houses becoming vacant to allocate to anyone except the legally homeless.

    With the “Right to Buy” only a philanthropic fool would ever return a council house to the council when its tenant no longer needs it. It’s such a big discount that letting granny die before you’ve bought her three-bedroom council house under RTB for her to leave to you is madness. You just borrow however you can, in some cases I’ve know it done by multiple credit cards, it’s a one-way bet as it’ll all be paid off with plenty over if granny’s lived there all her life, thanks to the discount. If you don’t have credit cards, there are commercial lenders who’ll do it all for you and split the profits anyway.

    But who’s ever going to win an election with scrapping RTB in the manifesto? Labour never tried, did it, so isn’t it a bloody cheek for anyone in Labour to complain about the government now having to do what’s necessary to deal with the consequences of RTB? Looking at how the printed media deals with the tiniest weeniest attempt to have a property tax which would lead to fairer distribution of housing on a needs basis leads me to despair on this issue. If a “mansion tax” which affects the richest 1% or so is headlined as “an attack on the middle classes” and believed by swing voters to be such, what chance is there of anything more radical getting through? Labour even reduced Capital Gains Tax on second homes, suggesting it agrees with the Tories that getting money by being a gentleman and doing it through being rich and idle is better than doing it by working for it, so should be taxed less. We LibDems have had to throw a lot away in bargaining just to get a little bit of an increase in CGT, not even back to tax sitting on your bum being at the level of on jobs, and that in the teeth of the propaganda sheets of the super-rich (i.e. UK newspapers) screaming abuse at us for pushing it.

    I’d love to be able to return to the housing security and real liberty that was given by council housing being as widely available as it was until RTB. But, be honest, how are we going to get there? Particularly as I suspect any attempts to tax property which the coalition might try (if the LibDems get enough strength to push for them) would almost certainly be met by opportunistic Labour attack rather than understanding of the long-term aims.

  • Simon Hughes isn’t fannying about waving his arms and asking: did Dave really say that? Did he mean it?

    He’s come out strongly against.

    Maybe Sara could express an opinion now…?

  • David Cameron obviously isn’t aware of the fact that LHAs employ under-occupation officers whose job is to help people downsize if that is what they wish to do. I know that my own local LHA pays down-sizers £1,000 for every habitable room they free up.

  • Matthew Huntbach,
    Thanks for the advice but I am more concerned by the ideological motivation of making the final step along the road to stigmatisation of those who need social housing by separating them entirely from the choice to enter such housing. The right to buy has happened and it has had the deleterious effect that you describe. This proposal adds into that the moralising tone that has run through most of the coalitions approach to social services and welfare. If you have improved circumstances we expect you to enter the housing market as a matter of moral duty and if you do not we will force you to. Social housing will no longer be a part of society it will be something we provide for the underclass on judgemental terms. We can already see the judgmental arguments in the post of Douglas McLellan ahead of you “I see people in council houses earning more than me and getting far cheaper accommodation – is that fair?”, social housing is seen in this way as being yet another benefit that is being taken advantage of by the undeserving poor.
    The solution to the problem is more social housing whether RTB exists or not.

  • Under the circumstances of an acute housing shortage – much of it caused by changing social trends such as longer life and later marriage – it does seem reasonable to see if we can get more efficient distribution out of social housing. If an underoccupied home can be vacated by moving a tenant to more suitable property at the end of a fixed tenancy then it can be freed up for a family in need of more space.

    However, I can’t help think that Cameron is solving the wrong problem. Sales of council houses and the refusal to build more have been the root cause of the housing crisis, coupled with the failure (read refusal) of private enterprise to keep up with demand by building more properties (and why would they when restricting supply means more profit?)

    All this has led to a situation where social housing IS now only for the most needy and hopeless or those lucky enough to be able to take on a lease from a relative – as opposed to what it ought to be, an affordable home for those who need it. Meanwhile those who would once have lived in council or housing association properties languish in the private-rented sector where rents are so high as to materially affect tenants’ quality of life and (unlike social housing which must meet minimum standards) people are crammed into any old dank slum their landlord sees fit to offer.

    If Cameron wanted to sort out this country’s chronic housing shortage he would be building or compelling private developers to build and maintain more – massively more – affordable housing. He would be not just allowing but forcing councils to invest in their housing stock and we would see a major national initiative on empty homes.

    But we don’t

  • Matthew Huntbach 4th Aug '10 - 5:17pm

    JRC, it’s easy to say “the solution to the problem is more social housing”, rather harder to implement. Housing is one of those things where while people will say “something must be done” they won’t vote for what is necessary. Those who won’t accept a lot more building on green land ought to see that the alternative is to make more efficient use of the housing stock we already have, which means things like fairly heavy taxation incentives not to hang to housing above your needs. But mostly the “don’t build on green land” people are also the “don’t make me pay any tax on my property” people. So they are also the “condemn millions to misery” people and the “see family life destroyed” people, since decent housing really is fundamental to decent family life. They probably regard themselves a decent upstanding citizens as well, despite the hypocritical contradictions in their views.

  • The abolition of the right to buy social housing/council housing should be the most important task of the next Labour Government along with a huge investment in state owned housing. We should put those unemployed builders to work immediately the moment we assume office. We should then set about dismantling Thatcher’s legacy: the fetish of home ownership. Social and geographical mobility could then be restored with a state sponsored national rented sector using demographic data to plan to build family homes, homes for single people and for the elderly. We must ensure a situation in which the state builds to make sure that no-one in this hugely rich country of ours is homeless. The private sector has failed the bulk of our people and cannot be trusted to provide the housing needs of the 21st century.

  • “Where is the moral duty in staying in a home for the sole reason that it is cheap and preventing someone else from getting a home that they need? What social need is being met by letting waiting lists build up? What social need is being met by creating a system of haves (I earn £27k ergo I am a have) and the have mores (earning £35k and getting cheap accommodation).” etc etc

    Are you a Conservative? I ask not to troll, but genuinely curious whether these are beliefs a Lib Dem holds.

  • What I find disturbing in this discussion (here and elsewhere) is how those arguing against any changes in how council housing is handled seem to overlook the fact that we already have a situation where those poorer sections of society have been divided into two distinct classes: those who do have council housing and those who don’t.

    How do we justify demands that the current system not be touched at all to the over one-and-a-half million who are waiting for council housing and not very likely to get it in reasonable time?

    Those who claim to occupy the moral high ground of fairness seem to me to protect something that appears to be inherently unfair on those who are actually the poorest and neediest and who can’t even get reasonable accommodation.

    It would of course be best to build more council housing – but how realistic is that?
    I’d like to see RTB revoked and life tenacies at least questioned.
    At the same time, I’d like to see a very serious overhaul of laws controlling private letting. There should, for example, be a chance to get a fairly permanent tenancy and some chance to make improvement to long-term rented accomdation without fear of having one’s rents raised on the basis that the value of the property has increased.

  • Betty Harris 5th Aug '10 - 11:57am

    Frank Field described owner occupation as “the way out of the poverty trap”. We should be thinking of ways to help people buy their own home, then council occupants on good salaries could be enticed to give up their property for those truly in need. We should also make sure that we no longer build “estates” but build mixed communities where some occupants rent and some buy. Council estates seemed a good idea at the time but have proved not so good in practice.

    Regarding the right to pass on ones council property to offspring – that system is abused. I know of a case where a son claimed he was living with his elderly Mum in order that he could inherit the lovely flat in a converted Georgian house. He lives there now. It gave him scope to let out his own place.

  • I can understand the back lash against the over haul of social housing and benefits, but I think it is long over due. The entitlement culture just breeds more dependancy, people if they are pysically and mentally fit to work should do so. People who earn the average wage for their city, town, region should rent in the private sector or take advantage of shared ownership. Subsidies to people who really do not need a welfare and or housing safety net should not get them. As for creating gettoes, a lot of council estates are already gettoes, social housing tennancy should require all tennants to abide by their tennancy contracts (which should be regularly reviewed) and should include acceptable behaviour criteria which if it is not met, they face swift eviction and their exclusion from the soical housing sectorl Homelessness might increase temporarily until the new facts of life sink in and then behaviours will change. This would not apply to mentally ill or sick and disabled people as they need to be dealt with by social services whose budget could be increased to ensure the correct support and service for this group, paid for out of some of the money saved by stopping the abuse of people who should be taking care of themselves and their families.

  • Adam Bell,
    Judgemental arguments are not necessarily wrong. I would say it fair to be judgmental about an individual who put their own freedom of choice over the basic liberty of others for example. This is exactly the judgement I am falsely being asked to make with these proposals. Encouraging others to be judgemental however, is a strong tool of social engineering and is being used as such in this proposal by demonising yet another sector of society on the basis of their perceived receipt of undeserved benefits for being poor and by implication immoral. It is just another in the line of ‘Broken Britain’, ‘Welfare isn’t working’, ‘Dependency or Entitlement Culture’, ‘Dole Scroungers’, ‘Benefit Cheats’, etc. We can ignore our role in social iniquity if only we can dehumanise the victims. Living in social housing should not open an individual to such judgements nor should being in receipt of benefits. Moral judgements are fine in some circumstances but not when they are designed to shift responsibility from the true cause onto an easy scapegoat. In this circumstance we are required to first deny the entitlement of a tenant to consider their house their home simply on the basis that their transaction is with a social provider. We then conclude that our failure as a society (to provide sufficient homes for our citizens) should allow us to treat such tenants with less respect and as having foregone their right to privacy simply because the state or some other social provider is the landlord.
    On social safety nets, they are not necessarily wrong but as the name suggests, should be understood as protections against the worst extremes of social injustice, not for systems designed to ensure social justice. When they are applied to the bases of human capabilities they do not promote equality and actually mitigate against it in many ways not least by eroding social cohesion. As can be seen in the response from Douglas McLellan.
    Douglas McLellan,
    You ask if it is fair for people earning more than you to pay less in rent than you by having a council house. Yes, it is fair. You seem to be labouring under the impression that having a council tenancy is equivalent to being in reciept of benefits. It is not. Even if it was you would not be entitled to your victimhood. A council tenancy is exactly the same as a private tenancy but because of social arrangements is sometimes cheaper. That some council house tenants are in reciept of benefits does not imply that being a council house tenant is a benefit. You demonstrate the social divisiveness that this policy proposal is designed to engineer by claiming yourself to be a victim not because your being unfairly treated but because those less worthy are also being fairly treated but getting a slightly better deal. The solution to your inequity is not removing the fairness recieved by others but by ensuring you have access to equal fairness.
    Matthew Huntbach,
    I agree with you entirely, it is easy to say ‘build more houses’ and, under prevailing popular opinions, almost impossible to do. It is however the right solution to the problem. The hurdles you point to do not imply that we should pragmatically accept proposals such as these. After all it was that kind of pragmatism that got New Labour, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown such bad names.

  • I don’t get it. Conservatives tried to sell all the social housing. now they seem to want to build new council properties with the proceeds of the sale of existing ones. I wonder if tis is a scam to get those existing tenents (older couples-thus too much room) to buy the property they live in, in case they are turfed out?

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