Social housing: foundation or springboard?

Today, Shelter is publishing information and evidence to assist local councils as they begin to compile their ‘Tenancy Strategies’ in the run up to the January 2013 deadline.

These strategies, required by the Localism Act 2011, need to set out how councils intend to respond to housing need, and specifically how they would like new social tenancies, such as those offered by housing associations, to operate in their area

Back in February, I spent an inspiring day with the Bristol Have Your Say Group – a group of people who have benefited from Shelter’s local support services and who want to use their experience to inform our work and to influence local housing policy.

We were there to discuss the radical shake up of social housing recently introduced by the Localism Act. The Act allows councils and housing associations to let their homes on fixed-term tenancies of five years or more, and requires councils to publish a Tenancy Strategy; the latter setting what social landlords should consider when deciding how to make use of the new flexible tenure.

It was school half-term and most people had brought along their children, who played in a neighbouring room. I asked how they felt about trying to address the desperate shortage of social housing by ensuring that people should only have social homes while they need them, with the tenancy brought to an end when their need had changed.

Most of those present were, or had been, in need of a more suitable home for a number of different reasons. But they spoke animatedly about their need for a real home, one they could afford to pay for independently and where they and their children could settle down.

Most were already employed, or planning to get a job, and most had experience of unstable and expensive private renting. I asked what role they saw social housing playing in their lives. The response of one mother has stayed with me: she said she saw a social home as a foundation, on which she and her children could build their lives. People discussed the time and money it took to make their homes secure from crime and adapted and decorated to their families’ needs. They said it would be a regular worry each time a fixed-term tenancy was close to being renewed.

I’ve since spoken with local officers tasked with developing their councils’ tenancy strategies. They have highlighted the numerous new challenges facing local housing authorities – increases in homelessness and housing need; the shortage of social homes; cuts to the affordable housing spending programme; the move to new ‘affordable rent’ homes charging up to 80 per cent of market rates; major welfare reform; and having to address local housing need with the cooperation of increasingly large housing associations with homes in more than one local authority area.

We know councils face difficult decisions when compiling their Tenancy Strategies. To assist them, we have pulled together all the information and evidence we think they need to make the right decisions for their localities: what is required; the evidence they should gather and consider; who they should involve and consult; and where additional guidance for social landlords may be needed.

For example, we know that people need stable homes from our work on the ground in local communities, and from a growing body of research evidence, including an on-going longitudinal study, which shows many people, especially the more vulnerable, want and need settled homes.

In our experience, bringing a tenancy to an end and re-letting a home can be a time-consuming and costly business, with the cost of an eviction from a local authority property amounting to £1,119. Evidence from overseas, where social fixed-term tenancies have already been introduced, shows that fixed-terms have so far done little to create vacant homes for people in need: in New South Wales, where fixed-terms were introduced in 2006, less than one per cent of tenancies have so far been terminated.

It’s therefore vital we all get involved in the development of local Tenancy Strategies, with local evidence and the views of people needing a home in the forefront of our minds.