Monday, 3 September 2018

Lack of discretion

The government published its long-promised Green Paper on Social Housing in August to avoid parliamentary scrutiny.
What had been promised to “be the most substantial report of its kind for a generation” was best described by independent commentators as “underwhelming” and “pitiful”.
It’s perhaps worth recounting some key information about the scale of our housing challenge. The contrast between the first part of the last two decades and the second is dramatic.
Between 1997 and 2010, we built two million more homes, another million families became home-owners, and we saw the biggest investment in social housing in a generation, together with massive falls in rough sleeping.
And I had consistently called for an increase in new affordable house-building to buy and to rent throughout that period.
Since 2010, we have seen new-housebuilding figures still well below those achieved before the global financial crisis – whilst developers sit on record levels of land with planning permission for housing, and make record profits, home ownership for the under-45s fallen by more than one million and home ownership fallen for all to the lowest level in 30 years, seen the number of new social rented homes fallen to the lowest number since records began, and had a huge rise in homelessness and rough-sleeping.
And I have consistently called for an increase in new affordable house-building to buy and to rent throughout this period as well.
Despite new house-building being at record lows, this government has also managed to cut the number of shared ownership and other low-cost home ownership homes being built each year by half since 2010 to just 10,870 homes in 2017/18, whilst giving away millions of pounds to subsidise existing homeowners earning more than £100,000 a year to buy another house under Help-to-Buy, and almost doubling the amount of green-belt land being built on, from 290 hectares in 2013/14, to 565 hectares in 2016/17.
In real terms, Government funding for new affordable homes fell from over £4bn in 2009/10 to less than £500m last year. And this government now defines ‘affordable’ as ‘up to £450,000’. What world are these Conservatives living in?
It is a catalogue of shame, shambles and ideologically-driven incompetence, with every new-house-building promise made since 2010 being broken. And, I stand by my statement that there is more chance of Sheffield Wednesday winning the European Cup by 2022 than there is of the government keeping its latest promise.
The Conservative claim to be the ‘party of the family’ is just a sick joke.
Over 120,000 children are now living without a home in temporary accommodation in England, an increase of 65% since 2010. In addition, there are hundreds of thousands of children each year who are now living in insecure tenancies and losing that home at the end of each short-term tenancy, not because the rent hasn’t been paid or tenancy agreements broken but just because the landlord thinks he can achieve another rent hike in this housing crisis.
This week, all these children will be starting the new term at school not knowing whether they will get to the end of this term or this school-year in the same home or at the same school. What sort of family life is this? What are the prospects for children to reach their real educational potential if they are continually moving home and school?
Having shifted the private rented-sector to insecure short-term tenancies, the Conservative – Liberal Democrat Coalition government started to do the same thing to social housing, that is council and housing association tenancies.
Historically, council and housing association tenancies (with a few exceptions) were ‘life-time tenancies’. Housing associations were required to offer tenants the “most secure” form of tenancy, meaning the majority of tenants were offered ‘lifetime’ assured tenancies.
In other words, if you complied with your tenancy agreement (paying the rent on time, not harassing the neighbours, not keeping pets in forbidden tenancies etc), it could be your home for life. This meant that people could invest in their new homes – carpets, fitted furniture, decoration, their gardens – knowing that it wouldn’t be wasted. [Some 35 years ago, I implemented a policy, going well beyond the statutory position, which enabled Sheffield council tenants to be reimbursed for investing in new kitchens, bathrooms or conservatories if they subsequently decided to move.]
Life-time tenancies provided stability to families, and especially to children, and to communities. All the research shows the big negative impact on communities and on community safety where there is high mobility, and there is a significant correlation between high mobility and lower performance in schools.
In 2011, the Coalition Government introduced a power for councils to offer ‘flexible tenancies’ - secure fixed-term tenancies with a minimum term of two years - to new social tenants. It also allowed housing associations to offer fixed-term tenancies to all new tenants after 1 April 2012.
Ministers said the changes were intended to give local authorities and housing associations greater freedom to manage their housing stock, ensure that social housing is allocated to those who need it most, and that lifetime tenancies are not given to tenants irrespective of how their circumstances might change in the future.
Nonsense. This was all about an ideological commitment to the highest level of owner-occupation (however poor some of that accommodation might be), to the demise of social housing, and to a thriving, highly profitable private-rented sector for everyone who was not a home-owner.
Everyone knew that what was being sold to the media and to the public as ‘increasing discretion and choice’ was nothing of the sort. Rather like Henry Ford – “you can have any colour you like, as long as it is black.” – the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats were committed to non-owner-occupiers being private insecure tenants. This introduction was just the softening-up process.
There was limited take-up of fixed-term and flexible tenancies by councils and housing associations. By 2014/15, only 15% of social housing tenancies were being let on a fixed-term basis.
And, so it was that, in 2015, the Conservative Government announced that it would “review the use of lifetime tenancies in social housing to limit their use…and ensure the best use is made of the social housing stock.” This meant “doing away with lifetime tenancies”.
The Minister, Marcus Jones, introduced new clauses to the Housing and Planning Act 2016, explaining that “the new provisions would prevent local authorities in England from offering secure tenancies for life in most circumstances.” He noted that “social landlords had not taken advantage of the discretionary powers introduced by the Localism Act 2011” and that “continuing to offer social tenancies on a lifetime basis did not represent an efficient use of scarce social housing.
What discretion? What choice? What localism? What devolution?
New regulations were promised…and promised…and, like all housing promises of this government, were never delivered.
But, on publication of the Green Paper on 14 August 2018, A new deal for social housing, the Housing Minister announced that the government “will not implement these provisions at this time”.
There’s certainly a lack of discretion, but what the future holds is anyone’s guess.