I had intended not to write any blogposts during my extended visit to the antipodes this winter. But the addition of new clauses at very short notice to the Housing and Planning Bill which introduce ‘mandatory fixed term tenancies’ of 2 to 5 years and end security of tenure for new council tenants touches a raw nerve for me. This is a smash and grab raid, stealing a core right from tenants with no real opportunity for debate outside the Bill committee. I am delighted Labour has opposed the change forcefully.
The policy, and the stealth with which it has been introduced, is symbolic of the contempt and loathing this government shows for people on low incomes. They can be moved around like pieces on a chess board to suit the convenience of the government and landlords, or at least be kept in a state of uncertainty as their ability to stay in their home while they are ‘reviewed’ by a housing officer in what will feel like an arbitrary manner. They must not be allowed to settle, to integrate into communities, to put down roots, to provide stability for their children, to build successful lives for themselves.
For people like me, who associate our own ‘social mobility’ with the platform of security and stability achieved by our families due to living in council housing, this is a bitter pill to swallow.
The Tories are not the only people to blame, of course. During her short period as housing minister, Caroline Flint flirted with this idea as well, and plenty of housing ‘professionals’ have made the case for ending what they like to call ‘lifetime tenancies’ – an invented term, quickly picked up by Grant Shapps to make the whole business seem unreasonable. Even now the ethically impoverished National Housing Federation can’t bring itself to defend what remain of tenants’ rights: their argument is that housing associations should be able to let ‘their’ homes to whoever they like and on whatever terms they like. At present they have got their way: the new fixed term tenancy model will apply only to councils while the government continues to work out what to do about the reclassification of housing associations as public sector for the purpose of defining public borrowing.
The story of security of tenure for council tenants is one of bitter struggle. Councils have not always been benign landlords. Even when they wanted to build a lot of council housing to help emancipate the working class they often managed the homes with a rod of iron. They never really shed the mantle of Octavia Hill and consumer rights were a foreign land. Some used the threat of eviction to exert social control and to separate the deserving from the undeserving poor. Labour eventually listened to the case for a charter of tenants’ rights and the Callaghan government sought to enact security of tenure, balanced by strong grounds for possession. Unlikely as it now seems, it was the Thatcher government that put ‘secure tenancies’ into law in the 1980 Act, picking up the Labour legislation and realising quickly that secure tenancies were a necessary foundation for the ‘right to buy’. Thatcher had an ulterior motive, but the tenants’ charter came into existence and brought with it a profound change in the style of housing management, more considered, more balanced, more respectful, more participative, and, when eviction was thought necessary, more evidence-based requiring a judgement in a court of law. Secure tenancies underpinned the modernisation of the social housing sector, even leading eventually (and regrettably) to tenants being called ‘customers’.
Social rented housing is our most precious housing asset. It’s existence broke the historic inevitability that people on low incomes and vulnerable people would also endure homelessness and dreadful housing conditions. It removed the blight of bad housing from generations of children. In my view it was the strongest mechanism of all to achieve genuine social mobility and to give children born into poor families similar opportunities to those enjoyed by better-off families. Many of the key tensions around social housing – the most controversial being who gets it, and who doesn’t – arise not from failure but from its success and popularity and the shortage of supply.
Of course the government and big parts of the housing industry will seek to pacify opponents of the change. It will be helpful to tenants, they say, to have their tenancies reviewed every 2 or 5 years. Most will be renewed, they say. Well, what is the point of that? The policy fails in either direction. If non-renewal is the primary outcome, the vast majority of tenants will end up in private renting, far less suitable for families and more expensive for tenants and the state. If most fixed term tenancies are renewed, the policy will not achieve its purpose of getting moreturnover to create more space for new tenants. The argument that the government is trying to make that people will be helped into owner occupation is, well, pants. A few more will exercise the right to buy, but where is the justice in that? Remain a tenant and get kicked out, buy and you can stay.
We now have a sector that, instead of managing estates effectively and helping tenants to progress in their lives, will be collecting vast quantities of data about their incomes in case they are ‘high earning’ (£30k per household), monitoring what they get up to so they can review their tenancy every few years, and of course checking the immigration status of new tenants to boot. The new Victorians are firmly in charge.
There is an old saying that to incentivise the rich you have to make them richer, to incentivise the poor you have to make them poorer. This is now writ large in housing. If you are or are able to become a home owner, all manner of gifts – let’s call them subsidies – will be showered on you. The Prime Minister will talk endlessly about the important security and stability that being a home owner gives you, and that this in turn creates the conditions for social advancement. Meanwhile, if you are a social tenant, you will be accused of being subsidised even when you are not, your ability to pay your rent will be constantly threatened by bedroom tax or benefit caps or benefit sanctions, you will be denigrated and demonised in the media, and your ability to stay in your home will be subject to the whim of a landlord even if you meet all the terms of your tenancy.
Security for me and not for you. Subsidy for me and not for you. Social status for me and not for you. Insecurity at work and now at home. A two nation government without a doubt.