Picking up Tony’s theme in our last post, our guest blogger seeks to answer the same question.
In housing circles there have been debates for years about the ‘role’ of council housing or more widely social housing, and of course these were given a further boost byJohnHills’ report in 2007. Before the election, as readers of red Brick are probably well aware, think tanks were falling over themselves to redefine – and usually narrow – social housing’s role.
But recently there have been even more worrying developments – typified by the media castigation of Bob Crowe for living in council housing which Steve covered in an earlier blog. Nothing could be more typical of the recent trend than the disgraceful article by Mary Dejevsky about fraudulent tenancies, which called for all council tenancies to be ended on 1st April 2013 at which point there would be a sort of moratorium and people (presumably by now waiting outside the front gates of their houses) would have to justify their entitlement to a continued tenancy.
As CIH’s Abi Davies has pointed out, while of course social housing is part of the welfare state, it is not ‘welfare’ in the sense that it’s only available when needed like a hospital emergency service. There has always been ambiguity about these issues in the media, most of whose commentators probably know and care little about social housing, but the recent trend is marked by a succession of coded comments about the sector by ministers, which are then regurgitated in the usual exaggerated ways by the media to produce a general picture of tenants who want to live in social housing long-term somehow being abusers of the system.
Steve has previously written about the misleading term ‘tenancies for life’, which is part of this slur campaign, when security of tenure is simply about proper consumer protection. CIH is about to publish a book, Housing and Inequality, which reminds readers that housing policy is about people’s homes and the home is a key ingredient of people’s happiness. This is something deliberately overlooked in current debate about security of tenure, the need for more ‘mobility’ and the issue of ‘underoccupation’. It is almost as if there are two housing systems, one in which owner-occupiers with adequate and secure incomes have an almost unthreatened dominion over their homes, while the more than one third of households who are not owners or who have only a tenuous grip on ownership have to live with much less security and less right to regard their house as their home at all.
The other slur is to describe council housing (in particular) as ‘subsidised housing’. There are several issues here. One is that all tenures are subsidised – the last government spent about £1bn in its last year subsidising owner-occupiers, for example. Of course social tenants pay sub-market rents, partly because of historic grants and subsidies and partly because social landlords are non-profit. However, if someone shops at the Co-op, we don’t describe his shopping as ‘subsidised’, do we?
Let me make a positive proposal to address this particular issue, at least as far as council housing is concerned. In a year’s time (April 2012) council housing becomes self-financing, and this presents a golden opportunity to kick the ‘subsidised’ tag. The Treasury is forcing councils to take on £6.5bn of extra debt, not currently in the system, to compensate the Exchequer for the profits (yes, profits) it would have made if council housing had still be on its books.
Let’s make a virtue of this necessity. Every Labour councillor, every council, the LGA, trade bodies like ARCH and the NFA, the CIH, trade unions, the four national tenants’ organisations – all should plan to publicly celebrate on 1st April 2012 the fact that council housing will have paid off its historic debts to government. From April next year it will no longer be subsidised, and in fact it will be making a modest return to reinvest in the homes it provides. Non-profit, yes, but subsidised – no!