Well, who needs council housing anyway?

Quite a lot of people, actually...

With social housing in decline there’s never been a greater need for councils to strengthen their presence as landlords offering secure, low-cost housing but Government policy threatens to snuff out their new beginning

By Mark Cantrell

This article first appeared on the June/July edition of Housing magazine

IT'S been a bad year for council landlords. The Government has come gunning for their property, while their relationship with organisations long-regarded as trusted partners turned decidedly Shakespearean over the matter of extending right-to-buy to housing association tenants.

Local authorities, after all, are the ones expected to cough up the compensation provided to housing associations for any sell-offs. The National Housing Federation argued it simply did what had to be done to safeguard its members’ independence – and it was up to councils to fight their own battles – but it’s left a sour taste for many a council chief.

Once shafted, twice shy, they might say. That housing associations – whether, individually, they wanted the “voluntary” deal or not – are now locked into a Faustian Pact with Government, courtesy of the Housing & Planning Act, does nothing to wash the taste away; nor, indeed, the fact that housing associations as social landlords are themselves facing existential turmoil.
Council housing, of course, has been badly depleted in the years since the original right-to-buy was implemented back in the 1980s, further denuded by stock transfer during the Blair-Brown Labour years, and the latest twists and turns are expected to denude stock still further – not just in terms of existing numbers but also the homes that it is said will no longer be built.

Councils were building again, many for the first time in a generation. The numbers were small – some 6,340 new homes in England since April 2010 – but crumbs after a famine is a feast. It was a beginning. Flashes of optimism, especially around the self-financing settlement with the Housing Revenue Account in 2012, saw the hopeful anticipation of a council house renaissance.

Now, as Chloe Fletcher, policy director at the National Federation of ALMOs (NFA) noted on the organisation’s blog, we appear to be “going back to the bad old days for council housing”.

“Councils already have to find, from their own resources, the costs of the discounts given to their own tenants exercising right-to-buy and in some cases pay any remaining capital receipt over to the Treasury rather than being able to use it to re-invest in housing locally,” she added.

“The new requirement to pay the Treasury a sum of money each year based on a formula of the expected sale of high-value voids will further deplete council’s resources and control over their assets.”

Indeed, the charity Shelter has suggested the extension of right-to- buy is going to cost councils in England £26 million a year and see the loss of 23,500 council homes in just one year.

“With millions of families struggling to find a home they can afford, forcing councils to sell off huge swathes of the few genuinely affordable homes they have left is reckless,” said Shelter’s Campbell Robb. “Whilst the small number of lucky winners from this policy will understandably be grateful for the chance to buy their housing association property, ultimately far more people will lose out and be left with no choice but expensive, unstable private renting.”

In March, the Local Government Association (LGA) revealed the fearful expectations of its stock-retaining members: 90% expected to see their stock decline as a result of Government policies, such as right-to-buy, social rent reductions, and so-called pay-to-stay.

Many predicted rising homelessness as a consequence (78%), along with increased demand for temporary accommodation on their turf (80%), while 81% expected to see their housing waiting lists climb higher. Furthermore, 82% said investment in estate development or regeneration would decline over the years to 2020, and 58% expected to see their housing benefit bill hiked up, as more people are forced into the more expensive private rented sector.

“[H]ousing reforms that reduce rents and force councils to sell their homes will make building new homes all but impossible,” said Councillor Peter Box, the LGA’s housing spokesperson. “With 68,000 people already currently living in temporary accommodation, more than a million more on council waiting lists, and annual homelessness spending of £330 million – there is a real fear that this lack of homes will increase homelessness and exacerbate our housing crisis.

“While private developers have a crucial role to play in solving our chronic shortage, it is clear that they cannot rapidly build the 230,000 needed each year alone. There is no silver bullet, but we will not resolve our housing crisis without a dramatic increase of all types of housing, including those for affordable and social rent alongside those to support homeownership.

“New homes are badly needed and we will only see a genuine end to our housing crisis if councils are given the powers to get on with the job of building them too.”

Research by social action centre Cambridge House and the University of Leicester, in partnership with Lambeth County Court Duty Scheme, suggests that local authority housing is an essential protection against homelessness for those who are vulnerable because of old age, mental illness or physical disability, as well as those who are on low incomes.

‘Why we can’t afford to lose it’ by Dr Hannah White of Cambridge House and Professor Loretta Lees of Leicester University, had its focus on south London, but has clear implications further afield. The aims of the research, conducted late last year, was to establish who is vulnerable from eviction and why, and to investigate how council housing and the law protects low income and vulnerable people. Their findings (see below), presented earlier this year, essentially reinforce the view that council housing is a far from obsolete asset.

“London is rapidly changing. Parts of the capital, particularly inner-city boroughs with large stocks of social housing are undergoing state-led gentrification, leading to the displacement of low-income groups. This is partly due to a potent mix of Government policy, cuts to local authority budgets and international investment, which has seen councils selling off dilapidated estates they can no longer afford to maintain,” said the report.

“Rather than resolving the current housing crisis, proposals such as the right-to-buy housing association homes, the selling off of ‘void’ council properties, removal of local authority planning restrictions and prioritisation of starter homes will likely see further increases in landlord repossessions and more families priced out of the capital. For the moment, however, council estates remain home to a large number of Londoners and offer secure and truly affordable accommodation.”

It all points to a clear need out there. This is further reinforced by a groundbreaking study commissioned by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF) and published in April. The researchers, led by Professor Suzanne Fitzpatrick at Heriot Watt University, ventured into territory left untread by government analysts to produce the first comprehensive study of destitution in the UK. It found that 1.25 million people – including 312,000 children – were destitute at some point in 2015.

“There is a shocking number of people in the UK living in destitution. It is simply unacceptable to see such levels of severe poverty in our country in the 21st century,” said Julia Unwin, the JRF’s chief executive, when the report was published. “Governments of all stripes have failed to protect people at the bottom of the income scale from the effects of severe poverty, leaving many unable to feed, clothe or house themselves and their families.”

There’s no official definition of destitution, except in asylum legislation, so the researchers ‘crowdsourced’ a working version from experts and the general public. They defined destitution as when someone lacks two or more basic essentials in one month. That is, they have: slept rough, had one or no meals a day for two or more days, been unable to heat or light their home for five or more days, gone without appropriate clothing for the weather, or gone without basic toiletries.

Around a third of those who fell into this state were described as having a complex need. Young, single people – especially men – were more likely to become destitute, but the study said “considerable numbers” of families are destitute too. The reasons people fall into destitution are many. Common causes include the extra costs associated with ill health and disability, unemployment, and the high costs of housing.

Government welfare reforms aren’t helping either: delays in benefit payments, or the DWP’s notorious sanctions regime also had a hand in tipping people into destitution. In 2015, destitute people reported problems with getting behind on bills (57%), serious debt (33%), benefit delays (40%) or sanctions (30%), serious health problems (29%), eviction (19%), problems with work (19%), a breakdown in family relations (25%), separation from a partner (14%), and domestic violence (11%).
Whatever the cause, deprivation results from the precarious nature of living for a long time in poverty: all it takes is one mishap or misfortune to tip someone over the edge. Council housing is no magical solution to poverty, of course, but by providing low-cost homes with security of tenure, it has a critical role to play.

All told, the reports and surveys and arguments raised above were all part of the furious debates and lobbying efforts unleashed to sway Government thinking on its Housing & Planning Bill as it made its way through the parliamentary machine.

Sadly, Government’s have a tendency to be deaf to moral arguments and blind to evidence when it clashes with their political objectives, and so it seems to be with this contentious legislation, as the Bill became an Act tweaked but far from defanged.

If the concerns of the LGA, NFA, Shelter and others are anything to go by, then for the sake of a few hundred thousand new mortgage holders, the Government is looking set to systematically exclude millions of people from a decent, secure home at prices they can genuinely afford.

With councils’ ability to play a role in providing genuinely affordable housing curtailed, and signs of a declining interest in providing low-cost homes for those at the lower end of the social pile emerging within housing association ranks, it begs an increasingly urgent question – where will those millions of our fellow citizens live in the years and decades to come?

# # # 

Protection for the poor

  • Local authority housing plays an essential role in protecting people who are vulnerable because of old age, mental illness or physical disability, as well as those on low incomes, from homelessness
  • Local authority tenants with a secure tenancy are better protected than housing association or private tenants
  • The Pre-action Protocol for Possession Claims by Social Landlords protects both local authority and housing association tenants. However, housing associations, unlike local authorities, can seek possession of a property using a Ground 8, Section 8 Notice. In this instance if the tenant owes more than eight weeks rent on the day of the hearing, the court has no mandate to intervene
  • Women with dependents, and ethnic minorities are disproportionately represented amongst those at risk of eviction in south London
  • Work does not necessarily pay – over two-thirds of those defending a possession order were either in full- or part-time work and yet still struggled to pay their rent
  • Housing benefit delays or mistakes are a primary cause for rent arrears
(Source: ‘Why we can’t afford to lose it’ by Dr Hannah White and Professor Loretta Lees)

This article first appeared in the June/July 2016 print edition of Housing magazine. It was subsequently published on the Housing Excellence website, 9 August 2016

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