A minor bit of today’s housing news is about John Healey MP backing a private member’s bill which, it is claimed, is a ‘blitz on council house sub-letting’. As someone who thought John did a half-decent job as housing minister I’d not normally want to take him to task. But there are reasons for questioning whether this particular bandwagon is a good one to jump on, even if his former opposite number Grant Shapps has already done just that.
First of course it needs to be said that council tenants who move out and make a fast buck by sub-letting the property without handing it back to the council are acting despicably, especially in areas of housing shortage (which let’s face it, means pretty much everywhere). It’s even worse when the new ‘tenant’ is using the property for selling drugs or something else which harms the neighbourhood. So it’s right that the problem is tackled and that such sub-letting should be illegal.
But as our esteemed co-bloggers at Nearly Legal have pointed out, not only is the practice already recognised as fraud, and so is already illegal, but councils like Camden have had successful prosecutions against tenants who have done it, as indeed has Tory Westminster. The private member’s bill from Conservative MP Richard Harrington is therefore a complete waste of parliamentary time, as unlawful sub-letting is already a criminal offence.
Why then are the likes of Harrington and Shapps trundling on with their bandwagon? First of all they presumably want to give the impression that ‘for far too long’ (to use a phrase beloved of Shapps) tenants have been getting away with murder (or sub-letting), and that only judicious action by a Tory MP has alerted us to the problem. Well surely if they want to play that game (and it’s not the first time), Labour ought to be making clear that it’s a ruse and have nothing to do with it.
Second, once again, social housing tenants are being targeted, as they have been recently with anti-social behaviour and other measures. This, surely, is the real reason for the private member’s bill. It’s to remind tenants once again that they are only temporary custodians of an asset owned by the state. “An Englishman’s home is his castle” is not intended to apply to social housing tenants, who’d best be moved on to a proper home in the private sector.
The message to Labour should be this: don’t be fooled into going along with measures which encourage social housing, and especially council housing, to be treated like an emergency social service. Even if extreme shortages and spending constraints are putting enormous pressure on landlords to use their stock as effectively as possible, we ought to think twice about any measure of this kind which the government supports. The chances are that its real aim is not what it says on the tin. And it’s not Labour’s job to undermine the objective that – ideally, if resources allow – social housing should be about providing homes that people can feel proud of and want to raise their families in.
I heard an anecdote recently from a social housing manager which reminded me of this point. He’d been chatting to a tenant who’d moved into a housing association house after many years in different private lettings. She said that she was so relieved to be in a place she could now call ‘home’, after having so many landlords who had imposed petty rules and having never been offered a long-term tenancy. It was encapsulated in a trivial conversation she’d had with her son, who’d asked whether in this house he’d be able to put posters on his bedroom wall. For the first time, she could say ‘yes’.