Richard Willis's Blog

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Council Housing – The Fairest Policy

A lot of fuss has followed David Cameron’s suggestion (reportedly with Nick Clegg’s support) that Council tenants should lose their lifetime tenancy rights. The present situation means that anyone can apply for a Council House. If you meet the basic criteria you are added to the waiting list and after a very long wait you might be lucky enough to be granted a house. The long wait is largely due to the limited supply of Council housing and the low turnover of occupancy. If tenancy is granted for life and in some cases family members are allowed to take over the tenancy it is hardly surprising that the turnover is very low and the supply doesn’t meet demand.

Compare that to the private rented market. Most private tenancies are for a renewable 6 or 12 months and the turnover is reasonably high as people move on in their careers and trade up in their housing status. It is similar in the owner occupied sector. Generally people move between houses every few years as they develop in their careers and start a family, moving to bigger and better houses at each step. Once a family is started there is often more stability as schools are started and a career matures. However, the flexibility allows the freedom to move when required with all the benefits for the individual and the economy.

David Cameron’s suggestion that tenancies should be granted for a renewable five or ten year period seems to me eminently sensible. Why should, for example, a lottery winner be entitled to retain their Council house when they could afford to buy a small palace; why should someone who inherits money or someone who is successful in their career block a family desperate for decent accomodation? Clearly a tenant that is unable to move on should be able to keep their house once granted but to inject more mobility in the Council housing stock and free up desperately needed properties is so logical I find it difficult to understand why the likes of Simon Hughes are opposed.

I did read one article in the Telegraph by Janet Daley which suggested that tenants would be discouraged from seeking promotion at work or getting on in life by the potential loss of their Council house but that argument seems specious to me. Who would not wish to improve their lot in life because they might have to move out of a Council property? That could surely be addressed anyway by the offer of help to enter the private rented market or to become a home owner. That is surely the purpose of the many shared-equity type schemes on offer. She also suggested that higher turnover in Council houses would damage the sense of community. Does she think that privately rented and owned areas have no sense of community? You only have to look at the state of some majority Council owned estates to see how unrealistic that statement is.

The other thing that the critics have not satisfactorily dealt with is why people whose circumstances have improved should stop those in a far worse condition than themselves being able to get a house. The “fairness” agenda surely dictates that those who are in a position to enter the private market should do so freeing up a Council home for those who are unable to afford to do so.

Those who have opposed the freeing up of Council house tenancies are also often the same people who have opposed the Thatcher government’s “right to buy”, which was one of the main causes of the break up of most monolithic Council estates, with the consequent injection of much needed private cash to improve the physical fabric of the environment.

I hope that the Coalition proceed with these proposals to end a lifetime right to tenancy. It is the right thing to do.

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August 8, 2010 - Posted by | National

19 Comments »

  1. Its clearly ludicrous to allow people to have an indefinite tenancy on such a valuable resource. Circumstances change, there should be a clear review process as to whether the tenant still requires support in the form of council housing, sensible fixed term contracts seem a good starting point. What incentive would there be for someone who after a few years has managed get a better job/salary to move on from their subsidised council housing and free it for someone who is more in need? Precisely nil currently by the sounds of it.

    Comment by Colin | August 9, 2010 | Reply

  2. Your argument is seriously flawed and the real reason there is such a lack of housing in this country is that our house building programme is at an all time low. This is because the banks (which we mostly own) continue to refuse to lend to business which includes house builders. The last government, despite numerous threats, failed to force the banks to lend and this coalition seems equally powerless. Only last week the majority of banks reported huge annual profits yet they still refuse to lend. The coalition must force them to do so which will give a much needed boost to the economy. A substantial increase in the house building programme will make housing more affordable for all sectors of our society as the programme should include both private and social housing. One final point is that the coalition should also force the owners of the 1 million plus empty properties going to rack and ruin in this country to either sell them or rent them out.

    Comment by Phil the Greek | August 9, 2010 | Reply

    • Phil – your arguments are ill-informed and very flimsy!

      Until a year or so ago house building was at a high level. One of the things that has caused the problem is uncontrolled immigration under the last Government, generating unprecedented demand for housing at the lowest levels.

      Banks are not refusing to lend. They are lending billions of pounds to good risks. What they are not doing is lending to poor risks. Is that really what you are advocating? That way would lead to a second banking crisis. It is ironic that people that criticised the banks for causing the last recession due to reckless lending are now the ones demanding that they lend more! Part of the problem has been that credit rating agencies have downgraded many previously good risks making it harder for them to borrow.

      On one thing we can agree that more should be done to bring empty homes back into the market but that is often easier said than done. Where owners are unknown or overseas this can take a very long time indeed. It is also the case that many are in areas where housing demand is low or the housing is of poor quality. It is not the solution it might seem on the surface.

      Comment by Richard Willis | August 9, 2010 | Reply

      • Hear, hear. There is enough building in this country over our green fields!!! It’s about time the old empty houses were reused and brown field sites used for building. I have always believed that council houses were a temporary “leg up” for families that needed them and I believe, like benfits, they should be means tested every five or ten years!

        Comment by Sandy Lancaster | August 24, 2010

  3. I manage a housing waiting list of approx 400 000. Your proposal to have fixed period leases is clearly a case of British muddled thinking. most of the tenants are not able to move up the housing ladder but are forced to continue in their present accommodation. Maybe more housing needs to be built instead of forcing people out of their accommodation into the street. You are guaranteeing losing ther next election if this idea comes into effect. Why are not more of the Council houses sold off at a discount. Also, why not have a sliding scale of rental based on their affordability. The more the tenants earn the more they pay.
    Please be serious, you cannot chuck people out of their homes just because 5 or 10 year leases have expired!!

    Comment by Brian Shelton | August 9, 2010 | Reply

    • Brian – no-one has suggested “chucking people out of their homes” and using emotive language does not make your case any stronger. The fixed period tenancies would be renewable if circumstances have not changed. There is nothing novel in this. It is exactly how the private rented sector works!

      I do agree with you that all options should be considered to help people move up the housing ladder but fixing them in a Council house for life is no way to encourage social mobility or self improvement.

      Many people would undoubtedly have their tenancies renewed at the end of 5 or ten years but a percentage would be helped to move on into the private rented or owned sector. This in itself would free up Council properties for those at the bottom of the ladder.

      Comment by Richard Willis | August 9, 2010 | Reply

  4. Thank you for your reply. I was purposely being emotive as this is what the general public (i.e. tenants) will probably feel.
    We have 44 500 rental units and only about 100 actually become vacant for re-allocation annually, meaning the waiting list, which increased by 19 000 last year, will actually never decrease. I know this supports your argument that something radical needs to be done to increase the turnover to accommodate new tenants. The current depressed economy unfortunately does not encourage upward mobility in housing.
    We only build about 8000 homeownership houses annually (Cape Town, RSA).
    Regarding renewing fixed leases will it not place an extra and unecessary burden on the local authority housing staff which are probably already hard pressed managing your current rental stock. At the best of times our estate office staff cannot cope with the workload.

    Comment by Brian Shelton | August 9, 2010 | Reply

    • Brian – I understand the problem you describe and you are right that the economic situation does not help! Undoubtedly fixed term tenancies would be an admin burden but so is dealing with hundreds of desperate people who at present have little hope of getting a decent home. Quite a few end up in bed-and-breakfast r other temporary accomodation which gives them no stability and reduces their chances of getting a job. We need to break that cycle and I believe that David Cameron’s initiative is welcome fresh thinking.

      Best wishes to you in South Africa!

      Comment by Richard Willis | August 9, 2010 | Reply

  5. Richard,
    Congratulations on managing to lambast the previous government while blaming immigration all in the one sentence. Right wing pettiness at its best.
    Although immigration has led to an increase in the number of people who need to be housed this is only one area. Increased levels of divorce, more people attending University and the fact that younger people are remaining single for longer also adds hugely to the demand for accommodation. This is why my house is worth more now than it was three years ago when by all measurements its value should have fallen drastically due to the recession/credit crunch. Demand for housing still far outweighs supply which leaves younger people with almost no chance of getting onto the housing ladder. It also allows landlords to demand and receive extortionate rates for very basic accommodation from both individuals and local authorities.
    You also state that the banks are lending to good risks. By definition you are therefore saying that house builders are bad risks. Where is your evidence for this?
    Cameron can tinker around the edges as much as he likes but this plan is yet another hopeless sound bite and will die an inevitable death. The previous government did nothing to alleviate the housing shortage and unless the coalition grasps the nettle and demands that banks lend to business this country is storing up a huge problem for itself.

    Comment by Phil the Greek | August 10, 2010 | Reply

  6. Hi Richard, hope you are well.

    Isn’t it amazing that when the Labour party actually predicted at the last elections, only three months ago that secure tenancies would end if the Tories were elected the Tories rushed out a leaflet stating that Labour were scaremongering and that there were no plans to end secure tenancies. Why didn’t you have the guts to put this in your manifesto? Was it because you knew this policy would not get votes?

    Comment by John Ennis | August 10, 2010 | Reply

    • Hello John – As I am sure you know something has to be policy before it goes in a manifesto. I am not sure if you are talking about national or local level because I don’t remember any such leaflet on either side. At present this is a proposal and not even a policy. It still has a lot of stages to go through before potential implementation, so talk of guts etc is not really relevant.

      As I am sure you know, Governments do tend to evolve policies once in office to deal with the challenges they face. I would have thought that you as an old fashioned Socialist would have supported helping those most in need at the bottom of the housing ladder regardless of any electoral consequences!

      Comment by Richard Willis | August 11, 2010 | Reply

  7. Another problem with fixed-term tenancies for social housing, and presumably no security of tenure after 5 years, or whatever, is a very human one. It is the nauseous knot of fear that tangles itself heavily in your stomach as the term nears its end. What if we’re chucked out? Where will we go? Do I have to move town? I don’t know if you have ever been in this situation, but I have, and I couldn’t sleep, couldn’t relax, couldn’t concentrate. It dominated my entire life. That burden, that human burden, is so often what the Right ignores when it comes to social policy. You may tell me to think of those on waiting lists, for a new or bigger property. I do – it must be dealt with, but substituting one set of hellish circumstances for another is no solution.

    Comment by Jonny | August 11, 2010 | Reply

    • Jonny – that is melodramatic nonsense. I have been in private rented accommodation for the last several years and in each case it was a 12 month renewable tenancy. I have never experienced fear and knotted stomach as the renewal approached! A five or ten year tenancy would give tenants medium term security and only those whose circumstances had clearly changed would be helped to move into the private sector releasing much needed accommodation for those less fortunate than them.

      So often the Left talks about caring for the poor but its policies do precisely the reverse. The Left also likes to scaremonger amongst the vulnerable to raise scenarios that are never likely to happen. Just to reiterate once again, people who have not seen their standard of living improve greatly would have their Council tenancies renewed under these proposals. The only ones affected would be people who have seen their income rise significantly for whatever reason and they SHOULD be moving out of the social housing network and into the private sector. It would presumably be for local Councils to manage the policy and determine what is right for their part of the country and according the waiting lists prevailing at teh time.

      So please let’s have a reasoned debate about a genuine attempt to help those people at the very bottom of the housing ladder.

      Comment by Richard Willis | August 11, 2010 | Reply

  8. A 12-month RENEWABLE tenancy, for a well-educated, employed and confident man. As for scaremongering, that would be like claiming that the Tories had plans to end social housing secure tenancies. Which they, er, did.

    Comment by Jonny | August 12, 2010 | Reply

  9. Jonny, you have just destroyed your argument:

    – well educated
    – employed
    – confident man

    None of these attributes were worked on under Labour. Just look at the stats! You made the majority in those sink estates feeling worthless and with no aspiration by feeding them on the benefits teat. Good for elections though Hey!

    Comment by Jazz | August 12, 2010 | Reply

    • I was merely pointing out that Richard’s personal circumstances are different from many people in social housing. I made no comment about benefits or aspiration. I know many well-educated, confident and employed people who live in homes provided by the council or housing associations. In many cases it was precisely the security of a home that gave some of my friends the chance to become such people. And I don’t know any “sink estates”. It must be a Tory phrase. I think they had them in Westminster under Shirley Porter.

      Comment by Jonny | August 14, 2010 | Reply

  10. “Uncontrolled immigration under the last government”.
    Quite right Richard, but the question needs to be asked as to exactly how much our current government will actually cut the numbers by.
    It needs to be drastic, bearing in mind that the population of the UK rose by 412,000 in 2009, and thats those that official figures were able to count. Well over 300,000 student visas issued last year, and nobody will have a clue as to how many return to their own country on completion of their ‘studies’. There is no mechanism to do so!
    No, I am not blaming the immigrant personally , but with house building at a very low ebb, and something like 8 million people in this country economically inactive, there is a major problem here.
    Many of the jobs that immigrants come to do need to be done by British workers, and one of this country’s major problems is to find a way to make this happen.
    We have approx 2.6 million ‘on the sick’……37% of those coming up for investigation signed themselves off before being ‘caught’. At that sort of rate a million people would sign off having been cured by some sort of miracle.
    Immigration puts an intolerable strain on social housing and needs to be seriously and lastingly cut to a level that allows new social housing to cut waiting lists.
    High demand for housing of all types has inflated the price in recent years to a quite ridiculous level. No wonder that so many people find it financially pointless to work. What a situation for a country to get into!

    Comment by Howard Thomas | August 13, 2010 | Reply

  11. At last some sense in housing policy from this government. Why should lottery winners keep a Council house when others are on the streets? Answer that Phil, Jonny and John Ennis.

    Comment by Doodlebug | August 17, 2010 | Reply

    • Absolutely. The number of lottery winners that are living in council houses hardly bears thinking about. And pools millionaires, too! Grrr!

      Comment by Jonny | August 18, 2010 | Reply


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