Why isn’t there more debate about the impending loss of security of tenure in the social housing sector? David Cameron first floated the idea back in 2010 and predicted “not everyone will support this and there will be a big argument”. It’s a move so controversial that even the prime minister’s own housing adviser then said that ending security of tenure would be a mistake.
Minded to avoid that, the coalition government first legislated to allow social landlords to grant flexible tenancies at their discretion. Ever since the Localism Act of 2011, landlords have been able to offer new tenants terms of 2-5 years. But most landlords have decided this isn’t appropriate and have continued to allow families to stay in their home as long as they like, as long as they pay the rent and play by the rules.
Frustrated by this, the government is using the housing and planning bill to ban secure tenancies. In the vast majority of cases councils will be forced to offer terms of 2-5 years only. At the end of this they will be expected to evict households who no longer “need” social housing.
Our fear is that trying to turn social housing into an ambulance service for those with the highest needs will relegate a section of the population to perpetual insecurity in the private rented sector; pushed out before they can exercise the right to buy, told they’re no longer eligible for social housing – yet still unable to afford homeownership.
So why hasn’t this yet erupted into the “big argument” the prime minister foresaw? The House of Lords will debate the proposal in detail over the coming weeks and hopefully this will give it the scrutiny such a momentous change in housing policy deserves.
But in the meantime, it’s the perfect blueprint for anyone who wants to sneak a nefarious reform under the radar:
- Harness the element of surprise
Eagle eyed readers would have spotted an opaque reference in the summer Budget to reviewing tenancies to make best use of stock. Then – nothing. Not a word on the proposals until the government snuck the landmark reform into the housing and planning bill. On the last day of Commons committee.
- Remember the importance of distraction
The ban on secure tenancies is jostling for attention alongside Pay to Stay, the Right to Buy, forced sale of council homes, the redefinition of affordable housing… Trying to find the worst policy in the housing bill is like a depressing Where’s Wally for housing campaigners.
- Depersonalise the impacts
The loss of security of tenure is a sea change for social housing, yet it’s not burst onto the front pages in the same way tax credit cuts did. It will mainly be new tenants affected by the loss of secure tenancies – although some existing households will lose their security if they move home. This makes it harder for people to come forward and talk about the impact it will have on their lives – which people have increasingly done to speak out against Pay to Stay. Similar effects can be seen elsewhere: the bedroom tax has provided vivid stories of heartbreak, while the comparable forthcoming LHA caps on social housing for new tenants have proved difficult to describe.
- Start with a grain of common sense….
The government’s rationale for the move is to make the best use of social housing stock. With 1.4 million households on the waiting list it’s a compelling ambition. But introducing constant and burdensome review and churn is not the answer either. And if the government is really worried about the efficient use of the social housing stock, the rest of the bill makes little sense.
- …and then distort it.
Of the little debate there has been, one of the most surprising claims was the Minister’s assertion that abolishing security will help social mobility. The government has framed the move as promoting homeownership, when in fact it risks moving tenants on before they’re eligible for Right to Buy discounts. It’s a particularly troubling move when you consider that Margaret Thatcher first guaranteed council tenants security as a way to bolster the rights of those who didn’t want to do Right to Buy. Such aspiration also ignores the simple mismatch of incomes and house prices, which means most social tenants do not expect to be able to buy.
The Lords will have a chance to scrutinise these arguments when the proposal reaches committee next month. It’s time for the “big argument” the move warrants.