Friday, 27 September 2013

COVER STORY: Pickles promises people power

And ‘gulags’ to you too, Mr Secretary

Eric Pickles said he felt tempted “to become a bit Maoist” in the pursuit of the Localism Bill’s much-hyped promise of freedom for local people, but its social housing reform proposals left many tenants feeling ‘kicked in the gulags’, as Mark Cantrell reported back in February 2011

From the language used, you’d think it was the fall of the Berlin Wall all over again, only there’s no jubilant crowds tearing down the concrete slabs with their own hands, or puttering Trabants trundling along the pot-holed roads towards the promise of a democratic destination.

Oh well, there’s always Eric Pickles cutting a dash as the heroic liberator ushering in a brighter tomorrow. That’s got to count for something. The secretary of State for Communities & Local Government appears to have a penchant for name-dropping Communist-era dictators whilst talking up his legislative package with ‘barricade-rumbling’ bombast. One almost expects him to punctuate his speech-making with a no-nonsense bark of ‘Comrades!’

“[The Localism Bill] is a triumph of democracy over bureaucracy,” Pickles told the House of Commons during the introduction of the Localism Bill’s second reading. “It will fundamentally shake up the balance of power in this country... It will revitalise local democracy and put power back where it belongs – in the hands of the people.

“For too long, Government has believed that Whitehall was the centre of the universe. We genuinely believe in local democracy, in local communities, and in local solutions. This Bill will give councils the power and the authority they need to make sensible decisions for their area – a shot in the arm for local democracy – and it will give people new rights, new powers, new opportunities to act on the issues that matter to them. By pushing power out, getting Government out of the way, letting people run their own affairs, we can build a stronger, fairer Britain.”

Hurrah for democracy then, except the Localism B ill isn’t really “getting Government out of the way”; rather it’s lengthening the leash on local authority.

Even so, nobody is going to complain about a little extra freedom, even if the leash remains to pull one back to heel when least expected, and the Bill has been broadly welcomed, if – as is often par for the course – there come attached a number of caveats and concerns. Councils certainly welcome the General Power of Confidence the Bill grants, but there’s concern about the 142 powers it grants central government to regulate and otherwise direct the ‘flow’ of localism.

Pickles’ shadow counterpart, Caroline Flint MP, called the Localism Bill the ‘only if I say so Bill’, while David Blunkett MP threw the jibe into the debate that the Government was “centralising the power and decentralising the pain”.

“This Bill fails to live up to its name,” Flint said. “For all the Government’s talk of localism, the Bill does nothing to convince us that it is anything more than a smokescreen for unprecedented cuts to local communities up and down the country... Far from devolving power as we were promised, this Bill represents a massive accumulation of power in the hands of the Secretary of State.”

The brusque Yorkshireman was having none of that, of course, and the previous Government’s record on decentralisation was lobbed back in Labour’s face as a non-starter. Well, this is all part of the theatrics of Parliament, of course, where shamelessness and a thick skin are a must, but on reflection Flint’s attack on the Bill’s proposals to end security of tenure for social housing tenants was somewhat unwise, given that she herself has ‘form’ in this matter. Still, it’s all good stuff for lobby correspondents and politics junkies, but outside in the real world, the Bill’s measures represent serious change with some potentially cruel ramifications. It’s an ill wind blowing with the Parliamentary hot air, and Blunkett’s interjection is perhaps the most apt for the social housing sector.


The tenants are revolting

The Bill’s content holds few surprises. The Government, after all, has been slapping proposals down on the desk with bewildering regularity: the Bill formalises the abolition of the Tenant Services Authority and the transfer of its regulatory role to the Homes and Communities Agency; it settles the long-running sore of the Housing Revenue Account; it proposes new homelessness measures; it gives councils powers to limit who can apply for social housing in their areas; it grants social landlords the power to set flexible fixed-term tenancies; and it introduces the so-called ‘Affordable Rent’ set at 80 per cent of local market rates.

While the sector has broadly welcomed the greater flexibilities and freedoms the Bill sets out, the measures it outlines are contentious to say the least, and social landlords and other housing professionals have some serious concerns about the implications for the future. The Chartered Institute of Housing (CIH), for instance, has stressed that the measures will further stigmatise tenants and weaken communities. Given these concerns, there is something of a gaping disconnect between the veritable new utopia Pickle’s ‘blueprint for Britain’ suggests and the harsh reality it inevitably invokes.

“Social housing – affordable and stable – should act as a springboard to help individuals make a better life for themselves, but all too often it can become a block on mobility,” said [then] Housing Minister Grant Shapps. He was writing in the introduction to the consultation document ‘Local decisions: a fairer future for social housing’, that set out the B ill’s housing elements and invited reaction from the sector.

“It is time to change the social housing system. To ensure that the system is more obviously fair; that good, affordable housing is available for those who genuinely need it; and that we get the best from our four million rented homes. The case for reform is strong.”

No argument there from the sector; it all sounds fair and reasonable. Except it doesn’t bode well that the deadline for consultation expired in the course of the Bill’s second reading. Some have accused the Government of bad faith by this curious clash of dates – showing contempt for tenants even – in carrying out what amounts to a fait accompli to push through its social housing reforms. The Department of Communities and Local Government (CLG) said that submissions to the consultation will be considered at the committee and other stages of the Localism Bill’s passage through the legislative process, but it’s an assurance that inevitably carries little weight among tenants.

Eileen Short, chair of Defend Council Housing (DCH), has called the consultation a “sham” and an “outrage”. “Tenants will not take this lying down,” she added. “We will not roll over. This is not just about us, but about the future generations and the rights that we have fought hard for. They will regret the contempt with which they are treating tenants.”

Tenants and housing professionals alike are concerned about the impact of new fixed-term tenancies on social cohesion and the nurturing of strong communities. After all, who can afford a stake in their neighbours and their neighbourhood, if they are effectively ‘living out of a suitcase’, facing up to the prospect of a rootless existence of enforced nomadism? Far from being a “springboard” to a “better life” it is more likely to become a diving board to the deeps of uncertainty, turning social housing into de facto “transit camps”.

“Tenants don’t believe it’s right to end lifetime tenancies, limit new tenancy agreements or move those earning more money out of their homes. Indeed, one member commented ‘this will have an adverse effect with tenants and families having to be constantly on the move, a break-up of communities, homes becoming transient camps with no permanent roots’,” said Michelle Reid, chief executive of TPAS.

Chloe Weatherhead, head of housing at e-Academy said: “Communities aren’t formed overnight. It takes time and effort to get to know your neighbours, to get your bearings in a new environment and to make a house a home. Fixed-term tenancies could destroy the communities that many people have worked so hard to build. They could mean the end of neighbours, instead creating whole streets of families who do not know each other. Who would bother planting a garden if you aren’t going to be around to see it flourish? Why worry about creating places for children to play if your children aren’t going to be around to use them? Many people choose to live in social housing and like where they live.”

The Government – in the form of Pickles’ and Shapps’ tireless ‘feel-good’ double act – have promised on numerous occasions that the reforms apply only to new tenants. Existing tenants, they say with all the smooth assurance of a couple of used car dealers, will be protected: their secure and assured life-time tenancies are safe in their hands, but not everyone is convinced by the dynamic duo’s helpful conviviality.

Short, and the organisation she represents, says that the Localism Bill is unclear and ambiguous about these protections. TAROE is also concerned about the lack of clarity and precision over the protections for existing tenants, adding that “future Governments may not continue this protection”. Indeed, there is nothing to say that the current Government won’t decide to reformulate the deal for existing tenants at some point. When everything is up for grabs – and the Conservative-led, LibDem-enabled Coalition has made it clear that this is the case – then nothing can be taken for granted.

Management of short-term tenancies and assessing the means of tenants to see if they are still somehow ‘fit’ for a social home – on top of adding to the admin and cost burdens – risks steering social landlords into what DCH called an “invasive policing role”. The fear was echoed by Leeds Tenants Federation, which said: “It is likely then that flexible tenancies – far from making the best
use of scarce social housing – will be used as a further weapon of enforcement to regulate the behaviour of social housing tenants.”

The principle that social – public – housing is something that must remain available for all, regardless of income or background remains a strong commitment held by tenant organisations and housing professionals alike. The CIH argued there should be no changes to the “overall right to live there”, saying: “social housing should not be exclusively used as part of the welfare system where people must leave when their lives change”.

“The bedrock principle of council housing, that it should be available to all, will be removed,” DCH added. “In recent years council homes have often in practice been rationed to those most in need due to scarcity, and this has led to a concentration of tenants with problems on estates. But the combination of fixed-term tenancies and changes to allocation policies are intended to enshrine this as a principle: a council block would become a hostel... Government says mixed communities are a good thing – now it sets out to destroy them.”

Will central authority listen to the concerns of the locals as it drives ahead with its localism agenda? That’s for Pickles and his ministerial underlings to demonstrate, of course, but he might yet discover he’s picked more of a fight than he bargained for, if the comments of some tenant campaigners are anything to go by.

“Trouble is coming. We intend to make them listen,” said DCH’s Short. “The Bill will be fought through the Parliamentary procedures and committees as strongly as the heat that MPs feel on all sides from tenants. That’s what will make a fight out of this. It’s not just about polite debates in Parliament, it’s about how much we can make them feel they’ve got no choice, because MPs are like councillors in the end: they all need to get re-elected and who do they need for that? The people who live in their constituencies. We know who those people are – because they’re us.”

Any self-respecting revolution needs its ‘kulaks’, but tenants are evidently not prepared to play the role expected. Far from it, they appear ready and willing to come out kicking. Watch out for those ‘gulags’, Mr Pickles.

This article was first published in the February 2011 edition of Northern Housing magazine (cover depicts the magazine's Southern edition) and subsequently republished on the Housing Excellence website, 21 February 2011.

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