The National Tenant Organisations have embarked on an interesting exercise to test tenant opinion on a range of issues about housing policy, many of them about changes which the government has already made or clearly plans to do. It asks for views on issues such whether tenants with higher incomes should pay higher rents, the fairness of increased right to buy discounts, and the effects of welfare reform.
The NTOs are hoping for a range of replies from tenants’ groups and bodies that work with tenants. It will be good if they receive a big response and the bigger it is the more interesting the results will be.
I’m particularly looking forward to the response to a question that effectively asks for views on the government’s pay-to-stay proposal, which is still out for consultation. I’ve been surprised that straw polls of housing professionals show support for the idea, as it seems to me it is questionable on both practical grounds and because of the implications for the sector as a whole. Given that social landlords only collect income data – if they do at all – at application stage, how are they going to track down all their tenants who are not receiving housing benefit and administer means tests on them? And presumably not only do that once but repeat the exercise at regular intervals? To ensure everyone is treated equally, they will all have to be asked for similar proofs of income. The cost in training staff to do this and the time required in writing to and visiting one million tenants is surely going to be many times the cost of any potential savings? It is going to be interesting to see if tenants’ organisations are more switched on to these snags than housing officers evidently are.
Another question asked in the NTOs survey relates to the real reasons behind proposals such as pay-to-stay and the enhanced right-to-buy, as well as several more of the government’s recent policies. The survey asks what should be the future role and purpose of the social rented sector – should it be an ‘attractive sector of choice’ or a ‘tenancy of last resort’? In an interesting short book published by Shelter in 2009, The Future of Social Housing, Mark Stephens posed a similar question, looking at the different experiences of social housing sectors in different countries. He suggested three (rather than two) possibly roles for social housing. One is the commonest in the northern European countries: he calls it the ‘affordability’ role but it equates with an ‘attractive sector of choice’ because its purpose is to compete on similar terms with private renting and even owner-occupation. Another is to be an ‘ambulance service’ (or tenancy of last resort) as in Ireland, the US and Australia, whose social sectors are much smaller than Britain’s. Stephens puts the English sector between the two, as a ‘safety net’ (and by implication the same would apply across the rest of the UK).
But it’s not only in Britain that debates about the purpose of social housing are taking place, given pressures to reduce subsidies and either charge higher rents or concentrate on housing those on the lowest incomes. In some cases like Sweden and Austria the outcome so far has been to maintain the sector’s wider ‘affordability’ role. In others, such as the Netherlands, there is pressure for the (very large) social sector to target lower income groups. If the debate is resolved in a particular way it doesn’t mean there are no ensuing tensions. For example, in both Sweden and Austria there are marginalised groups like migrants who struggle to get access to social housing, and in Sweden and France there are now ‘sub-social’ sectors catering for such groups and providing less security. In the Netherlands, tenants who gain their house using a ‘priority card’ because of their housing need might well end up in a poorer neighbourhood than someone allocated a house through the waiting list.
So the ‘safety net’ role is perhaps a typical British compromise that attempts to get the best of both worlds – providing secure and attractive homes but without excluding the neediest groups. It is clearly under threat as the sector continues to decline and many who would like to enter it can’t do so. If tenants opt in the NTOs survey for an ‘attractive sector of choice’ they will (rightly) be challenging any further shift towards social housing becoming an ‘ambulance service’. It will be interesting to see if the government pays attention.
But it will also be important for the NTOs to show how a vision for social housing can balance creating or maintaining an attractive sector with a continued role in housing the most vulnerable. This is a challenge for housing organisations, too – and of course for the opposition front bench in developing its new housing policy. Although it doesn’t provide all the answers, boosting supply is clearly one of the biggest priorities. A sector that – in the course of this year – will provide fewer tenancies than private renting is rapidly ceasing to be available as an ‘attractive sector of choice’ for many on the outside who would like to make that choice but simply aren’t able to.