As all probation staff are only too well aware, access to safe and secure accommodation is a key prerequisite of helping people sustain a crime-free life, but the Tories are about to make things that much more difficult. This from the Guardian:-
On Tuesday, the House of Commons will once again debate the government’s new housing and planning bill, hyped up as the key to “transforming generation rent into generation buy”, which will supposedly mark another big step towards the age-old Tory dream of a property-owning democracy. But tangled up in its visions of thousands of new “starter homes” – 5,000 more of which were promised on Monday, when the government said it was going to directly commission housebuilding on five sites in the south of England – are an array of drastic measures aimed at what remains of England’s council homes. Labour sees the bill as the work of a government set on nothing less than the end of council housing as we know it – and on the ground, plenty of people agree.
Among the bill’s scores of proposals are a few that cut straight to the heart of what council housing has traditionally been all about. For a start, the government wants to end the system of permanent council tenancies – which was cemented while Margaret Thatcher was in power – and replace it with arrangements that will be reviewed every two to five years, meaning that for new tenants, council housing will no longer represent anything secure or dependable, let alone be passed between generations.
There are also plans to introduce a policy for council tenants known as pay to stay, whereby households that collectively earn more than £30,000 a year (£40,000 in London) could be presented with a choice: either move out, or be charged rents “at market or near market levels” (or, weirdly enough, work less). At the same time – and this is where it all gets almost comically complicated – so as to subsidise housing associations that will now have to sell houses and flats under a newly extended right-to-buy scheme, councils are to be forced to sell their highest-value homes as soon as they become vacant.
No one is sure how any of this will work, and the government seems to be making things up as it goes along: on Monday, for example, David Cameron announced that for every high-value council house sold in London, two supposedly “affordable” homes would be built – but there was no suggestion of any kind of like-for-like replacement. The essential story, then, seems pretty clear: a drastic attack on council housing, which will become not just less secure, but restricted to an ever smaller share of the population, just when Britain’s housing crisis has never been more acute.
How did we end up here? Just under 8% of us now live in council housing; in 1979, the figure was 42%. From the end of the 19th century onwards, the idea of the state providing people with secure and dependable places to live had steadily gained ground. The origin of council housing lies in the Housing of the Working Classes Act of 1890: three years later, the first council estate – Boundary Street, on the border of Shoreditch and Bethnal Green – was built in east London. By the time Britain entered the era after the second world war, both Conservative and Labour governments were building council houses in huge numbers – indeed, the annual number of new builds peaked under the Tories in 1953 at 220,000.
The history and legacy of all this is a little more mixed than some accounts suggest, partly bound up with the decline of building standards under Conservative rule, estates built on the edge of towns and cities that became bywords for inequality, and high-rise developments that quickly fell into decay. But at the heart of what happened was a simple ideal – of dependable housing for everyone – and a plain social fact: that to live in a council house was perfectly normal.
All that began to change in 1980, when the Thatcher government rolled out the right to buy, an idea that had been around since the late 1950s when a form of it was proposed by the Labour party. This new version was based on huge discounts, 100% mortgages – and the insistence that councils should use the 50% of the receipts they were allowed to keep to pay down their debts rather than building new houses.
As the writer Lynsey Hanley – whose 2007 memoir-cum-social history Estates remains the modern set text about council housing – puts it, from then on: “People wanted to think of themselves as being self-sufficient units. They didn’t want to think of themselves as having a kind of reliance on the state … It became a fundamental plank of the kind of ‘British values’ culture.” Between 1979 and 2013, 1.6m council homes were sold, numbers of new homes plummeted and council housing went from an inbuilt part of the post-war settlement to something pushed to the social margins.
In the meantime, the term “social housing” entered the British vocabulary as councils were superseded by independent housing associations – whose “assured” tenancies tended to be that bit less dependable than the secure terms available in what remained of the country’s council housing. Indeed, from 1997 onwards, the Blair and Brown governments proved to be more interested in housing associations than the traditional idea of council homes: in the 13 years they were in power, a mere 7,870 council houses were built.
And in popular culture, stereotypes that had been given new life in the 1980s eventually went nuclear: the mid-to-late New Labour period, let us not forget, was the era of Little Britain’s council-estate grotesque Vicky Pollard, the hairstyle maligned as the council-house facelift, and the bundling-up of council housing in the same dread category as “chavs” and welfare scroungers.
The views of council housing in both politics and culture, in fact, were intertwined. As Hanley puts it: “There was no urge on Labour’s part to reclaim the best parts of council housing’s legacy … If they’d restored the good name of council housing while they were in power, the Tories wouldn’t have been in such a good position to wreck it now.” (Jeremy Corbyn, by contrast, has said that there is no convincing solution to the housing crisis that “does not start with a new, very large, very active council housebuilding project”.)
No one expected David Cameron and George Osborne to be any kind of friends to council housing, but their record still beggars belief. Government investment in social rented housing was cut by two-thirds almost as soon as the Tory/Lib Dem coalition took power. In 2012, jump leads were put on the right to buy when the maximum discount available to tenants was doubled to £75,000 – and a year later, the figure went up to £100,000 in London. The government accompanied this with a pledge to replace every home that was sold, but at the last count, for every nine houses sold, only one was being replaced.
Which brings us to now, and the latest legislation. “This bill has 33 new powers for the secretary of state over housing and planning,” says John Healey, a Labour MP and former shadow housing minister. He is particularly irate about the new income thresholds for social housing – which, as far as he understands it, will be discretionary for housing associations, but compulsory for councils. “That is going to catch a swath of ordinary-income families: people who are not earning a fortune, are working hard … Their low rents and long-term tenancies are an important part of their lives, and they’ll get taken away. Some of these people are the same ones who would have been hit by the tax credit cuts.”
He points out that the new “starter homes” the government talks about are set to sell for up to £250,00 outside London and £450,000 in the capital itself, which will hardly make them accessible to many existing tenants. All told, he says: “It’s clear to me that the Tories are killing off council housing, and this bill tightens the noose yet further.”
This from Steve Hilditch on the Red Brick blogsite:-
I had intended not to write any blogposts during my extended visit to the antipodes this winter. But the addition of new clauses at very short notice to the Housing and Planning Bill which introduce ‘mandatory fixed term tenancies’ of 2 to 5 years and end security of tenure for new council tenants touches a raw nerve for me. This is a smash and grab raid, stealing a core right from tenants with no real opportunity for debate outside the Bill committee. I am delighted Labour has opposed the change forcefully.
The policy, and the stealth with which it has been introduced, is symbolic of the contempt and loathing this government shows for people on low incomes. They can be moved around like pieces on a chess board to suit the convenience of the government and landlords, or at least be kept in a state of uncertainty as their ability to stay in their home while they are ‘reviewed’ by a housing officer in what will feel like an arbitrary manner. They must not be allowed to settle, to integrate into communities, to put down roots, to provide stability for their children, to build successful lives for themselves.
For people like me, who associate our own ‘social mobility’ with the platform of security and stability achieved by our families due to living in council housing, this is a bitter pill to swallow.
The Tories are not the only people to blame, of course. During her short period as housing minister, Caroline Flint flirted with this idea as well, and plenty of housing ‘professionals’ have made the case for ending what they like to call ‘lifetime tenancies’ – an invented term, quickly picked up by Grant Shapps to make the whole business seem unreasonable. Even now the ethically impoverished National Housing Federation can’t bring itself to defend what remain of tenants’ rights: their argument is that housing associations should be able to let ‘their’ homes to whoever they like and on whatever terms they like. At present they have got their way: the new fixed term tenancy model will apply only to councils while the government continues to work out what to do about the reclassification of housing associations as public sector for the purpose of defining public borrowing.
The story of security of tenure for council tenants is one of bitter struggle. Councils have not always been benign landlords. Even when they wanted to build a lot of council housing to help emancipate the working class they often managed the homes with a rod of iron. They never really shed the mantle of Octavia Hill and consumer rights were a foreign land. Some used the threat of eviction to exert social control and to separate the deserving from the undeserving poor. Labour eventually listened to the case for a charter of tenants’ rights and the Callaghan government sought to enact security of tenure, balanced by strong grounds for possession. Unlikely as it now seems, it was the Thatcher government that put ‘secure tenancies’ into law in the 1980 Act, picking up the Labour legislation and realising quickly that secure tenancies were a necessary foundation for the ‘right to buy’. Thatcher had an ulterior motive, but the tenants’ charter came into existence and brought with it a profound change in the style of housing management, more considered, more balanced, more respectful, more participative, and, when eviction was thought necessary, more evidence-based requiring a judgement in a court of law. Secure tenancies underpinned the modernisation of the social housing sector, even leading eventually (and regrettably) to tenants being called ‘customers’.
Social rented housing is our most precious housing asset. It’s existence broke the historic inevitability that people on low incomes and vulnerable people would also endure homelessness and dreadful housing conditions. It removed the blight of bad housing from generations of children. In my view it was the strongest mechanism of all to achieve genuine social mobility and to give children born into poor families similar opportunities to those enjoyed by better-off families. Many of the key tensions around social housing – the most controversial being who gets it, and who doesn’t – arise not from failure but from its success and popularity and the shortage of supply.
Of course the government and big parts of the housing industry will seek to pacify opponents of the change. It will be helpful to tenants, they say, to have their tenancies reviewed every 2 or 5 years. Most will be renewed, they say. Well, what is the point of that? The policy fails in either direction. If non-renewal is the primary outcome, the vast majority of tenants will end up in private renting, far less suitable for families and more expensive for tenants and the state. If most fixed term tenancies are renewed, the policy will not achieve its purpose of getting more turnover to create more space for new tenants. The argument that the government is trying to make that people will be helped into owner occupation is, well, pants. A few more will exercise the right to buy, but where is the justice in that? Remain a tenant and get kicked out, buy and you can stay.
We now have a sector that, instead of managing estates effectively and helping tenants to progress in their lives, will be collecting vast quantities of data about their incomes in case they are ‘high earning’ (£30k per household), monitoring what they get up to so they can review their tenancy every few years, and of course checking the immigration status of new tenants to boot. The new Victorians are firmly in charge.
There is an old saying that to incentivise the rich you have to make them richer, to incentivise the poor you have to make them poorer. This is now writ large in housing. If you are or are able to become a home owner, all manner of gifts – let’s call them subsidies – will be showered on you. The Prime Minister will talk endlessly about the important security and stability that being a home owner gives you, and that this in turn creates the conditions for social advancement. Meanwhile, if you are a social tenant, you will be accused of being subsidised even when you are not, your ability to pay your rent will be constantly threatened by bedroom tax or benefit caps or benefit sanctions, you will be denigrated and demonised in the media, and your ability to stay in your home will be subject to the whim of a landlord even if you meet all the terms of your tenancy.
Security for me and not for you. Subsidy for me and not for you. Social status for me and not for you. Insecurity at work and now at home. A two nation government without a doubt.