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Don't dither, Margaret

Rowley Cllr Lee Rowley of Westminster Council on why we should break with social housing for life

The news that the Minister for Housing, Margaret Beckett, is hesitating on proposals to reform social housing   is one that should concern all of us who want a system which supports the most vulnerable in society.

Tonight, just short of 75,000 households will go to sleep in temporary accommodation whilst waiting for a permanent social housing property to become available.  This includes nearly 4,500 families with children waiting in hostels or bed and breakfast accommodation across the country.  Clearly, there is something wrong with a system that condemns people into often inappropriate accommodation for months, if not years.   

The government would like you to believe that the solution is simple; build. That is remarkably one-dimensional.  It also avoids a long-overdue debate about the purpose and best use of a social housing system which is supposed to support the most vulnerable in our society.

With a social housing stock numbering 4 million, shouldn’t the real question be why we can’t accommodate these 75,000 ‘homeless’ households already?  Are we really saying that in a dynamic and prosperous society, four million households should have to rely on state support in perpetuity?   

Well, actually, we’re not.  Conceptually, social housing is organised around one key principle – that, once allocated a property, a tenant retains it for life and, in some cases, can pass it to their children – irrespective of whether that household is still ‘in need’ of public support.

The government’s own figures show that nearly 200,000 households were granted their tenancies before Richard Nixon became US President.  And because social housing rents are marked below market levels, that means the state could effectively have subsidised a household by up to £200,000 over a similar period – irrespective of how many of those 40 years such support was actually needed.  It is the equivalent of still claiming child benefit on the day you qualify for Saga discounts, simply because you too were young once.
Last month, the Chartered Institute for Housing became the latest group to agree that the existing system was floundering.  The CIH proposed a system of regular tenancy reviews to ensure that all tenants still needing state support get it and, crucially, to identify tenants who have successfully got back on their feet and who now might be able to aspire to housing independence from the state.   

Even today, in a benefits system which doesn’t reward work, such a group already exists.  Government figures suggest, for example, that at least 260,000 social housing households contain one individual earning in excess of the UK median gross annual earnings level.  That’s the equivalent of a city the size of Sheffield.

How this physically translates into policy-making is a discussion still to be had.  Encouragement into home ownership would seem a logical step.  In Queensland, reviews are undertaken every 4 years and tenants are served with ‘notices to leave’ if no longer in need of state support.  Alternatively, a less intrusive policy might be to allow individuals to retain their property, but move social rents up to the market level over time, thus providing more resources to be spent on the needy.

Of course, the government must honour its commitment to existing tenants – and that commitment is to a home for life.  But, as new tenancies are agreed, maybe some new thinking is necessary.  Shouldn’t we say that support is available for as long as is genuinely needed, but when it isn’t, don’t we have a compassionate duty to transfer that support to others who remain vulnerable?

The bottom line is that our current housing system often fails the very people that it seeks to support.  Labour often talks about ‘multi-pronged approaches’ to finding solutions.  Well, Margaret: here is your chance.  By all means build.  But also look at who we want to be supporting through social housing in the future.  Look to another Margaret and return social housing to the purpose it was so successful at in the 1980s – as a launchpad towards personal independence. The very welfare of the most vulnerable in our society depends on it.

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