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Constant insecurity for council tenants will be costly

By Savi Hensman
December 12, 2015

The UK government plans to scrap lifetime tenancies for new council tenants. If this goes ahead, it will be costly to tenants, their neighbours, communities and the public.

In an amendment to the Housing and Planning Bill, local authorities would have to review tenancies every two to five years, taking into account any change in circumstances. They could then let the occupants stay, move them elsewhere or evict them.

In social housing, tenants are supposed to pay only the costs of their accommodation (though in reality council tenants sometimes subsidise other local services). It remains an asset for the public and no-one makes a profit or loss.

The government seems fixed on viewing property as a private economic asset. There has been a sustained attack on allowing housing which is there just for people to live in. This has included extending the ‘right to buy’ to housing association tenants. Making all new council tenancies short-term is another blow to the very existence of social housing.

Under the proposed changes, let us suppose a young couple about to have a baby were sharing a crowded flat with the parents of the mother-to-be. The damp exacerbated her asthma. They were finally rehoused in a nearby council flat.

Five years later, one partner had got a job as a hospital porter, the other had become a sales assistant when the child started school. The grandparents and friendly neighbours helped with babysitting when the parents worked late.

Under the new legislation, they might then be evicted again since they were supposedly doing too well to ‘deserve’ a council flat. There would be little prospect of a remotely affordable anywhere nearby. So all would have to relocate, the parents lose their jobs and the child contact with his friends and wider family.

Alternatively they might feel they had to exercise the ‘right to buy’, even if they were afraid they might not be able to keep up the mortgage payments, despite the heavy discount. Unlike social housing, this policy does involve a public subsidy.

This would mean one less council home available in the longer term to anyone who needed it. And it might well mean that the flat ended up in the hands of a buy-to-let landlord with the family homeless again.

Another example might be someone who gets a flat because he has severe mental health problems and has just left psychiatric hospital. Five years on he is coping far better and has even started a small self-employed business. He is booted out, has another breakdown and ends up back in hospital.

The new policy would clearly be expensive to new tenants, both financially and emotionally, in terms of constant insecurity. The psychological and other health-related damage to children, in particular, could have drastic long-term consequences.

While some private tenants facing exorbitant rents might resent social tenants, who pay just to maintain the property rather than enriching a landlord, they too might lose. They would be competing for scarce properties with ex-council tenants, which could drive private rents up still further.

Tenants would be constantly aware of the risks of putting down roots only to have these painfully yanked out. So bonds of community would be broken at a high cost to community life.

In addition, the harsh punishment risked by those who work or study hard and end up earning more might stifle aspiration.

At a practical level, tenants would have less incentive to maintain or improve their homes, since they would just be passing through. In addition constant reviews of housing, changes of schools and so forth could prove expensive.

If ex-council tenants required housing benefit, the costs would generally be far higher in the private rented sector. So this would be another cost to the public purse.

However there would be an even higher price if the measure helped to inflate an already worrying property bubble to bursting point. Another crash could have catastrophic economic consequences.

When council tenants are genuinely well enough off to buy, they can do so now, freeing up their home for someone else. This is very different from inflicting unrelenting insecurity on numerous individuals and families and pushing yet more property into the hands of corporations and landlords.

The proposal is harsh, unjust and makes little economic sense, other than in terms of lining the pockets of those who are already wealthy. While the government may regard these as highly deserving, this is not the best basis for housing policy.

© Savitri Hensman is a widely-published Christian commentator of politics, religion, welfare and allied topics. An Ekklesia associate, she works in the care and equalities sector.

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