The new serfs

In my first ever post on Red Brick I traced the development of security of tenure in social housing and the reasons for the introduction of secure tenancies to council housing in 1980.  To put it mildly, landlords did not always behave well and tenants needed basic consumer protection against arbitrary or unfair actions.  As I said there, without security tenants have fewer rights in relation to losing their homes than drivers have in relation to parking tickets.

Are social landlords better now?  Yes they are, indeed much much better, but they are still highly variable and some, frankly, just can’t be trusted.  It has taken years of regulation and inspection to change the attitude and practice of some of them, and that pressure is about to be stripped away.  At the bottom of it is respect for tenants, who are now informed customers rather than grateful serfs*, tugging the forelock to the landlord. 

I am hugely impressed by the humanity and commitment of most people who work in social housing.  It can be a hard and challenging sector to work in.  But I also have little doubt that some will slip back into old ways given half a chance.  I have sat in many a room with senior managers moaning that their basic problem is the tenants.  Nothing wrong with the properties, one housing director said, it’s the people that need fixing.  Or the housing association chief who said that the problem nowadays was that tenants no longer feared their landlord.  

Security of tenure regulates the relationship.  Bad tenants can be removed, so it is not a tenancy for life as then propagandists say.  The landlord has to go to Court and provide evidence against a set of rules fixed by Parliament.  A serious decision – to remove somebody from their home – is taken seriously and with proper process; people have clear rights to object and put their case. 

Landlords hate the Courts, partly because the wheels of justice are slow, cumbersome, bureaucratic and not always rational in outcome (here they have a fair point), and partly because the Courts are a check and balance on their administrative power.  The Courts don’t always throw tenants out just because the landlord says so. 

With temporary tenancies the decision to remove the tenant from their home will be taken administratively by the landlord.  No doubt there will be rules, but these will be locally determined and I doubt if there will be much transparency and there will be no effective external regulation.  Internally, the power to make decisions will be delegated.  Housing officers will be required to make decisions I do not believe they are equipped to take or ever will be: whether a tenant stays or goes, whether they pass or fail a means test, whether a tenant still needs or, worst of all, deserves the tenancy.  It will change the whole basis of the relationship between tenants and front-line housing staff.  Tenants will feel more fearful, deferential, and uncertain.  The scope for bad practice and error, discrimination and bad behaviour by landlords will increase.  By mirroring the arrangements in the private rented sector, the social sector will import more of the failings of that sector as well. 

This is why I think the housing lobby will make a serious mistake if it gets into an argument with the government about the minimum length of the new tenancies – 3 years is better than 2 – rather than articulate and defend the core principle of security of tenure itself. 

*Even under feudalism landlords could not dispossess serfs without cause.

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