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Friday, August 06, 2010

The future of social housing

A number of Liberal Democrats have commented on the recent off-the-cuff remarks by David Cameron in which he suggested that council houses should no longer be allocated "for life". Those I have spotted are Sara Bedford, Alex Foster, Tom Stubbs and Steph Ashley. Many of them have acknowledged that the Prime Minster has raised a valid point, some have posed questions as to how it will work in practice but not all are on board.

Like Simon Hughes I have concerns, not least because I believe that having identified a problem, David Cameron has failed to think through the consequences of his solution, whilst at the same time confusing tenure with issues of supply and demand.

The idea that Council and other social housing should just be there for those who are in economic straits is wrong. It creates a ghettoisation effect whereas in reality we need a mix of housing, both to rent and buy, private and social on all estates so as to offer choice to people according to their circumstances.

That choice is often denied through shortages on the supply side, some of which is down to lack of movement by tenants but most of which is down to economic pressures on the housing market itself. The fact is that if we do not have enough social housing for rent then that is because large numbers of homes were sold under the right to buy, a policy which David Cameron still advocates.

The real issue of course is social mobility, both upwards but also geographically. Both the current housing minister and his Labour predecessor identified that the inability to find suitable housing was stopping people taking up employment. The proposed solution being piloted now by Grant Shapps is that people who live in social housing in England will be able to swap homes more easily with other tenants anywhere in the country.

The Freedom Pass will allow them to see details of every council and housing association tenant looking to exchange. They have previously only been able to do this in their local area, or through a more complicated system elsewhere. That is a start. We may also want to take the bureaucracy out of the transfer scheme that exists between local councils and place some sort of duty on local authorities to assist with housing where somebody has secure employment and is moving into their area, the 'right to move' as Mr. Shapps puts it.

In terms of social mobility I think we need to understand what actually happens in many instances. Some people have argued that somebody whose economic circumstances have improved should move out of their social rented property and buy instead. That surely has to be a matter for them to choose. However, what normally happens in these circumstances, especially in a period of rising house prices, is that the tenant uses their new-found prosperity to purchase the council home under the right to buy. They then sit out the discount repayment period, sell the home at a profit and buy somewhere better. The outcome is that they have moved on but their previous home is no longer available for rent, unless of course the Council has bought it back with a pre-emption clause.

The Welsh Assembly's newly acquired power to limit the right to buy for a short period in areas of high demand so as to replenish the social housing stock may assist to counter that, but that does not remove the need for investment. There are for example 26,000 empty private sector homes in Wales, many more in England. These properties are a blight on the local community and the owner should pay much more in Council Tax as compensation for failiing to use that asset properly. However he or she should also be offered assistance from Social Housing Grant money to bring it back into use, initially for rent at an affordable price.

We need to expend more resources on helping people in difficulties with their mortgage stay in their own home so that they do not become another statistic on the waiting list and we need to offer incentives to tenants to move to more suitably sized homes. This is particularly pertinent where a single pensioner ends up occupying a two or three bedroom house for example.

Better management of our housing stock to tackle the problems we face does not have to involve taking people's tenancy rights off them. It means working with a wide range of individuals and organisations to secure the best outcome.

David Cameron's proposal took the line of least resistance and in employing an element of compulsion offended my liberal principles and sensibilities. Having articulated the issue he now needs to find realistic and achieveable solutions, some of which I have suggested above. That will require more thought and application than a throwaway remark. Hopefully, wiser heads will prevail.
During my childhood my family moved to London from Wales via council house exchanges in search of work. The first one was from a Trowbridge Estate in Cardiff to a huge council estate on the eastern edge of London - in S.E. London – I understand that my parents put an advert in a London newspaper and made contact with a Welsh council house family living on the SE edge of London; and “so it went” I guess my parents traveled to London to see their house, and I guess they traveled to see our council house on Trowbridge estate. Because the local council estate school in London was a complete mess and the estate was somewhat out of mainstream London, so my parents did another council house exchange - this time a three-way one (if memory serves, but I was only about 10), we swapped with a council house family living on the border between Streatham and Tooting - and hence in a more central location, this time in SW London. Some years later my parents wanted to move back to Wales to be nearer family and did another council house exchange this time with a council house family living on Lansbury Park estate in Caerphilly who wanted to move to London.

So there's no actual absolute requirement for a national council house exchange listing because those who want to exchange council houses in search of work will do so anyway using classified advertisements in newspapers or I guess will use Craigslist (or its functional equivalent). Central government council house listings will probably age and have families on them that have changed their mind etc.

Council house exchanges are very traumatic things - especially on the children - I know my youngest brother got quite confused with accent issues; I lost all my London friends. But one thing it taught me: I grew very resistant to the impact of change - I thought next to nothing of moving about the UK and to Norway (didn't happen) and then to the USA (not planned), then from the Midwest to the East coast and living in very varied circumstances.

Families that move in search of a better chance of getting job via council house exchanges are likely to be under some considerable stress including financial pressure. I know my dad hired a truck with a driver and we loaded it up for the drive to Caerphilly, I remember the truck turned up late and we had to move all the house furniture into the front garden for everyone to gawp at it. We were in a state of panic and already pretty upset at the thought of heading somewhere than none of us children by now really knew - one brother who was just 16 took off, he couldn't cope, he did not know Wales even though he was born there. It was unthinkable leaving him behind, but we had to. He ran off to stay with a friend and then lived in digs. He eventually came to his senses and travelled to Caerphilly, by then we had moved again, this time to Churchill Park, Caerphilly which had less of a gang/glue sniffing problem that plagued parts of Lansbury Park.
Peter, I grew up on a council estate in Swansea and there were many people who were earning decent income but refusing to leave their council homes. I think this is what the Prime Minister is referring to?

I agree with most of your analysis, my parents also bought under the Right to Buy scheme though they did not sell up and move on. They are still there now.

Personally I think council housing should be for those who are unable to afford to buy or rent and should be the Councils safety net for those unfortunate enough to be in that situation.

Doesn't it infuriate you and offend your Liberal values when you saw BMWs parked outside a council house? Especially when you must see families at your surgeries who have nothing and live in temporary housing?

I think Mr Cameron is indeed onto something.
I am in social housing, a housing assocation flat. The one thing that kept me from the brink of self-destruction through severe illness was knowing I had a safe and secure home. Private renting is no good, you cannot make a permanent home because your landlord can kick you out at any time. Security of tenure is vital in helping people through problems and back into work and being productive. Take it away and you will put people such as myself (and I am not unusual) in extreme distress, leading to crime, strain on the NHS and even suicide.
i live in a social housing flat having been homeless and having a long term mental health illness...

gradually i have been able to take on more work from voluntary through to some paid work... at the moment thanks to cheaper social housing rents i need to get to 11,000 per year to stand on my own with private rent it would be more like 16,000... ...this would lead to longer reliance on housing benefit and make a difficult 'journey' feel almost impossible at present i am getting there and proud to live in social housing THANK YOU GB x mark
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