On Tuesday the Labour MP Frank Field asked for leave to introduce a Housing Bill that "would require the Secretary of State to make provision for the system for social housing allocation to give priority of choice of social housing to those with an exemplary tenancy record."
Hardly a statement from any of our senior politicians today does not mention that they are standing shoulder to shoulder with the hard-working families of this country. It is a sign of the times in which we live that senior politicians feel that they have to affirm what most people would consider an axiomatic position for all politicians to occupy.
The Bill would define what we mean by hard-working. It would obviously include people who work hard—those who gain work and pay their taxes—but it would also have a more generous definition. As we all know from our constituencies, hard-working families have an extraordinarily important roll-over effect as regards community benefits. For example, the hard work that families put into raising their children means that they are not only a credit to the families concerned but diligent in their concern for their neighbours. We are all aware of the importance of the hard work people put into building up strong neighbourhoods, so the Bill’s definition of hard-working is generous and not mean.
Field's Bill would retain the priorities for those in need – those who are homeless or in overcrowded conditions. But those in need "would also be judged in the first instance on whether they were also good citizens, so a premier league would be formed of those of our constituents who were in a position to have first choice of all the social housing—the best social housing—when it became available."
In an article for Inside Housing, Field adds:
Some critics might claim that such a policy cannot work, that it will prove all too difficult to operate in practice. But just such a policy which favours the good tenant used to work fine.
Most tenants who had up-to-date rent payments, and whose children were well behaved, could make the first bid for the best houses when they became available.
If such a policy once worked I cannot see for the life of me why it cannot work again. Or that it would prove more troublesome than the present set-up that penalises those decent families who are a credit to their local community.
The other Labour MPs signed up as sponsors are John Mann, Siobhain McDonagh, Roger Godsiff, Hazel Blears and Natascha Engel. We haven't seen the wording of the Bill yet but it doesn't sound terribly localist – otherwise the general objective is spot on.
What do the Labour councillors think? Manchester and Newham are in the right lines in this respect. But there are nearly 100 Labour-run councils in the United Kingdom. What will the rest do? Ed Miliband urged them to follow the example, but will they?
From my own patch the evidence is discouraging for the Labour leader. We had a council meeting last night in Hammersmith and Fulham which included a debate in the following motion:
SPECIAL MOTION NO. 4 – HOUSING ALLOCATIONS
Standing in the names of:
(i) Councillor Andrew Johnson
(ii) Councillor Harry Phibbs
“This Council notes and endorses the recent comments made by Leader of the Opposition, The Rt Hon Ed Miliband MP, that:
1. “Those on the waiting list for council accommodation should move up that list if they are contributing to their communities, being good neighbours, and seeking work”
2. “Need matters, but actually you should be rewarded with extra points, and councils around the country are starting to do this, and I want more of them to do it, if you for example work or contribute to your community."
This Council resolves:
1. To continue to meet its statutory obligations in respect of urgent housing need, and;
2. To enable social housing in Hammersmith & Fulham to be accessed by residents who work or make a contribution to the local community, and;
3. To ensure that the future scheme of allocation for social housing will seek to give greater priority for those applicants who can demonstrate a positive community contribution. These will include:
• Those in employment
• Those looking to start their own business
• Those undertaking certain training
• Transfer applicants with a positive tenancy history with no previous rent arrears
• Those who can demonstrate a contribution to the local community through certain types of voluntary work
• Current and former members of the armed forces, including the Territorial Army.”
In my customary consensual manner I did all I could to persuade the Labour councillors to support Labour policy. I quoted Caroline Flint. I quoted Liam Byrne. I quoted Sir Robin Wales, the Fabian Society, the Smith Institute (founded in honour of John Smith). I would have quoted Frank Field but I only saw his comments this morning. So I gave it my best shot. But the Labour councillors simply refused to say whether or not they agreed with their leader. When it came to the vote they abstained.