Defending ‘secure tenancies’ against the New Victorians

Time to wake up to the implications of ‘flexible’ tenancies and means tested ‘social housing’

(You can download a PDF of this here endingsecuretenancies)

Such is the scope of welfare ‘reforms’ introduced by the coalition government that it is difficult to keep track of them. Those which impact on Council tenants are many. Much attention has centred on the ‘bedroom tax‘ which penalises tenants in receipt of housing benefit for having ‘spare’ bedrooms. However, one of the most far-reaching ‘reforms’ which threatens our ‘secure tenancies’ has received little attention in the mass media – so-called flexible or fixed term tenancies.

Ever since 1980 Council tenants have been ‘secure tenants’ under law. Secure tenancies were introduced in 1979 in a Housing Bill of the Labour government and enacted by the Thatcher government in the following year. A ‘secure tenancy’ gives tenants genuine security. We know that if we pay our rent and behave in a civilised fashion then we do not face the prospect of being turfed out of our homes. We don’t face the insecurity which tenants do in the private rented sector.

The coalition government doesn’t talk about ‘secure tenancies’. It prefers to call them ‘lifetime tenancies’. There is a propaganda purpose in this. It implies that it’s unreasonable to give tenants ‘a home for life’ regardless of their circumstances. In fact, a secure tenancy is an open-ended tenancy, but it’s not necessarily for life. Tenants can be evicted for breaches of their tenancy agreement, although the ‘secure tenancy’ ensures that the Council has to have a good reason for seeking possession. In order to evict them a local authority has to prove the grounds for taking possession of the home and that possession is ‘reasonable’. Nonetheless, people are evicted for persistent arrears, for anti-social behaviour and the like.

Not long before the last General Election, Labour Minister John Healey predicted that the Tories would end security of tenure for future housing tenants. He didn’t need a crystal ball, to make this prediction, he only had to read policy documents from Ian Duncan Smith’s ‘Centre for Social Justice’ which promoted the idea. In an interview with the magazine “Inside Housing” David Cameron dismissed Healey’s prediction as a “smear”. The “compassionate Conservative Party” (remember that?) apparently believed in the importance of ‘social housing’ and the security it provides. “We support social housing, we will protect it, and we respect social tenants’ rights”, he said. “Social tenants have nothing to fear”. Shadow Housing Minister Grant Shapps declared that “Conservatives will protect social tenants’ rights and rents”. A spokesperson for the Party insisted that they had “no policy to change the current or future security of tenure of tenants in social housing.”

Yet within a few months of the election the coalition government announced they would be giving local authorities the right to….end ‘secure tenancies’ and introduce ‘flexible tenancies’ for new tenants. They baulked at applying it to existing tenants which would have created a furore and undoubtedly been subject to a legal challenge.

Following the abandonment of this short-lived promise, every Council is now in the process of producing a ‘tenancy strategy’, which has to be consulted and introduced by the end of the year. Each of them has to decide whether or not to introduce ‘flexible tenancies’. They have the freedom to introduce them, or not, as they may decide.

A ‘flexible tenancy’ will enable a Council to introduce what are in effect temporary tenancies, for a fixed number of years. Many Councils are introducing five year tenancies, although in some cases two year ones. The rationale for these is that ‘social tenancies’ should provide a “safety net” for when people are “in difficulties” – a tenancy “when it is needed for as long as it is needed”. Grant Shapps, until recently Housing Minister, reckoned that too many people were “trapped in social housing”, the assumption being that ‘social housing’ is only a temporary ‘support’ on the way to the holy grail of home ownership, “a springboard to success” (an idea picked up from a New Labour Minister). Obviously anybody who stays in ‘social housing’ must be a failure.

To evict or not evict?

The introduction of fixed term tenancies necessitates Councils drawing up a set of criteria for determining whether or not a tenancy is renewed at the end of the fixed term. A council will have to give a tenant 6 months notice, either way. If the tenancy is to be ended then the tenant will have to either find private rented accommodation or get themselves a mortgage, if they can.

Their level of income is one of the criteria which will be used to determine whether or not a tenant ‘needs’ the tenancy. This involves a threshold above which nobody can be given a tenancy, or above which (e.g. if somebody gets a better paid job job or promotion) an existing tenant will be forced to leave; that is to be evicted. Under the ‘localism’ legislation Councils can determine their own threshold level, either for an individual tenant or for the two highest earners in a household. Amongst Councils that are introducing fixed term tenancies, the level at which the threshold is being set is vastly different. For instance the Conservative administration in Barnet has set a threshold of £32,580 whereas Westminster has set one of £61,400 (for 1 and 2 bedroom households) or £74,000 (for 3 bedroom households or greater). In the case of Westminster “capital assets” (savings) will be taken into account and “can be assessed as notional income” (i.e. they’ll assume you are getting income on your savings above £16,000 whether you are or aren’t).

Some authorities have decided that if there is a change in the composition of a household, say a child leaving home, then a tenancy which is ‘under-occupied’ will not be renewed. On this basis anybody with ‘spare bedrooms’ will be forced to move to a smaller property, if available. There are insufficient smaller properties as the case of Swindon shows. ‘Under-occupation’ is based on the ‘bedroom standard’ which was introduced by the New Labour government. It’s a standard that takes no account of the usual life-cycle which families go through. Rigidly applied it would force families to make a number of moves as their family grows and declines, when their children leave home. Whatever happened to ‘tenant choice’?

The introduction of fixed term tenancies would give local authorities the right to evict people who have done nothing wrong. Councils would have more power over tenants. It would give them the power to take life-changing decisions against the wishes of tenants. The ending of ‘secure tenancies’ would mark a fundamental change of circumstances for Council tenants. Their introduction would mean creating the insecurity which exists in the private rented sector into the Council housing and Housing Association sectors.

A tenure solely for the poor

Above all, fixed term tenancies would finnish off the process (begun by Thatcher) of transforming Council housing and Housing Association homes into housing solely for the poor, a means tested tenure. The coalition government appears to view ‘social housing’ as a form of charity. Indeed some Councils envisage using ‘social housing’ as a means of encouraging ggood behaviourh, some that it should only go to people who work for a living (regardless of the circumstances of people who might well be unfit to work, or struggling to find it when there are 2.5 million unemployed), and some have decided that young tenants will have to find jobs or be thrown out.

Council housing was never envisaged as a tenure for the poor. Indeed, before the 1957 Rent Act, private rented accommodation tended to be cheaper than Council house rents. Prior to Thatcher’s ‘right to buy’, Council estates were very much the ‘mixed communities’ that this government is supposedly in favour of. They comprised of a cross section of working people, from the school cleaner to the school teacher, the
factory worker to the clerical worker. Ever since ‘right to buy’ was introduced and no replacement stock built, the shortage of housing has created a change in the social composition of ‘social housing’, with nearly two thirds of tenants on housing benefit and only 34% of tenants in work. It’s not ‘social housing’, however, that creates poverty, but government policy. There are 1.8 million households on the waiting list and the shortage of housing so acute that new tenancies tend to go only to those most in need; e.g. single parents and disabled. This composition is reflected in the fact that of the 660,000 households affected by the ‘bedroom tax’, two thirds are disabled. Introducing a threshold for earnings will reinforce the concentration of poverty amongst ‘social housing’ tenants.

Fixed term tenancies will produce transient communities instead of stable ones. Contrary to received wisdom you do not have to own a house as an “asset” in order to treat it with respect. Most Council tenants, precisely because they know they are going to be living in their home for a long time, devote time, effort and money, to it’s upkeep and improvement. If somebody doesn’t know whether they are likely to have their temporary tenancy renewed, they are not going to take the risk of spending money, time or effort, on it.

The New Victorians

Tenants organisations and tenant activists are campaigning against the ending of ‘secure tenancies’ because they would lead to the deterioration in the lives of tenants. ‘Flexible tenancies’ would undermine our independence, introducing instability, and make tenants fearful of their future. The government’s ‘social housing’ policy is consistent with its suite of ‘welfare reforms’. It’s ‘bedroom tax’ is designed to pressure tenants into work and/or into smaller homes by cutting the meagre amount of money they have to live on. The ‘flexible tenancy’ is designed to force people out of their homes if they earn ‘too much’ or if their children leave home. These New Victorians in the coalition government mirror the mentality of the Poor Law Guardians of the 19th who wanted to cut ‘poor relief’, make life so miserable in the workhouse as to discourage people from moving into it, and separate families who had the misfortune to end up there. The New Victorians wants to cut the cost of welfare and ‘make work pay’ not by improving wages but by cutting benefits so that insufficient money to live on acts as an ‘incentive’ to work, even though there is a shortage of jobs.

Whilst they can no longer stick us in the workhouse, the party which prides itself as being the defender of ‘individual liberty’, is proposing to give Councils power to intrude into the lives of tenants as never before; the power to impose a means test on people who pay full rent; the power to poke their nose into our financial affairs; the power to move people from property to property without their agreement and against their will; the power to rigidly impose a ‘bedroom standard’ which originates from the 1930’s when overcrowding was far worse than today, and one bedroom for a couple alone, would have been a step forward.

The prejudice on which their policy is based has its roots in the attitude of the Thatcher government to Council housing. When journalist Simon Jenkins was a civil servant and Thatcher was briefly Shadow Housing Minister he offered to take her on a trip round London to show her examples of good council estates and bad council estates. She responded by saying “there are no good estates”. This mentality is alive and well in the modern Tory Party full of “arrogant rich boys who don’t know the price of milk”, or indeed the roots of the housing crisis. Their attack on ‘secure tenancy’ is an expression of their contempt for ‘social housing’ tenants who they view as social failures. Their view of ‘social housing’ as a “safety net” is summed up by the words of the chair of Ian Duncan Smith’s CSJ “Housing and Dependency Working Group”: “social housing is not a desirable destination”.

Waking up to the implications of flexible tenancies

Recently the TUC passed a resolution which called for “a massive social house building programme” as well as an end to the “right to buy”. However, to move forward to this we have to defend what we have. Currently there is not a very wide appreciation of the implications of flexible tenancies and the further impoverishment of ‘social housing’ tenants. The campaign to defend ‘secure tenancies’ needs to be stepped up. In particular those unions that voted for the TUC resolution, especially the big 3 which are affiliated to Labour (UNISON, UNITE, GMB) should be pressing for a commitment from Labour that if elected to office they will reintroduce ‘secure tenancy’ for all tenants.

Although we don’t yet have a clear overall picture of the ‘tenancy strategies’ which all Councils are in the process of producing, there appear to be few Labour Councils defending the principle of ‘secure tenancies’ and all manner of concessions to government policy are being made (at which I’ll look at in a separate article). By the end of the year all these ‘tenancy strategies’ will be in place and the picture will be clearer.

In 2008 Jack Dromey, then Assistant General Secretary of the TGWU, in challenging the policy of the New Labour government, said this to a conference of the Defend Council Housing campaign:

“There is but one way to go and that is for government to intervene, because the market has failed. Council housing is not just our history but our future. The tide is beginning to turn – one Scottish Council alone wants to build a thousand new Council homes. But the tide is not moving fast enough. The government needs to put new money in. But we also need to completely change the rules in relation to council house finance…council tenants rents should go back into council housing.”

If Council housing is to be “not just our history but our future” then we need to defend ‘secure tenancies’ and win a new round of Council house building on a mass scale. What Labour’s policy is, or might be, I’ll look at in a separate article.

Council housing was conceived as a socially necessary tenure; necessary because of the failure of ‘the market’ to create affordable housing for working people. It is not charity. A conservative activist in Swindon, in a discussion on the ‘bedroom tax’, recently said that “beggars can’t be choosers”. We are not beggars. Genuinely affordable housing is a necessity for a stable life. ‘The market’ will not provide it.  Sooner or later the reality of the housing crisis will lead to the realisation that it cannot be tackled without building Council housing once again on a mass scale. However, those who cannot defend the existing rights of tenants are unlikely to make the necessary shift in thinking to develop a policy based on social need rather than one dependent on ‘the market’.

Martin Wicks

Secretary, Swindon Tenants Campaign Group

September 27th 2012

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3 Responses to Defending ‘secure tenancies’ against the New Victorians

  1. shifro says:

    Wowee! Secure tenancies for all tenants, really affordable rents for all tenants -whatever next? Put greedy bankers, politicians and landlords in the stocks and why not if it will help to bring about a sane society.
    You are right in everything you say Martin.

  2. Lorraine Vale says:

    So what happends to people like myself? been with the council for over 30 years…no rent or tenant problems. Looked after the house and signed only 1 tenancy 30 years ago. Worked for those 30 years until i was disabled 5 years ago…That means long term and i should have the right to stay here and not be a victim of the governments greed and mistakes.

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