Due to the policy of localism, there is now considerable discretion for local councils over the allocation of social housing. The Government recently issued guidance on this to help councils make use of their new power, and sought comments which they have summarised.
Councils are now able to reward those who have served in the armed forces – otherwise they tend to be effectively discriminated against as their work causes them to be mobile. Councils can also reward those who are in work or making an effort to get into work, and those making a "community contribution" – for instance, working as a Special Constable or for a local charity – by giving them higher housing priority. There should be general support for this – the Labour leader Ed Miliband has backed the approach.
Yet many councils have responded negatively. I put in a Freedom of Information request to the Department for Communities and Local Government to find out which ones.
Incidentally, I think that in future responses from councils to this sort of policy consultation should be published. This happens when groups and individuals give evidence to Commons select committees and it doesn't seem to cause any great practical difficulty. When councils give comments, residents should be able to see what is said in their name. Whisper it softly: some council leaders and Cabinet Members for Housing might even become aware of what their bureaucrats say in their name.
Pathetically, many councils said they need guidance on how to define such matters as "making a contribution to the community." They don't seem to have grasped the idea of localism. Those who are really incapable of independent thought are welcome to copy our ideas in Hammersmith and Fulham.
Anyway, there is no surprise when leftwing Labour councils are opposed to any recognition of merit or effort – despite the timid soundbites from their Party leader.
Here are some of the Labour responses:
- Leeds City Council says it "does not give greater priority" to those who serve in the armed forces. Their housing preference policy "does not extend to customers who are seeking work." They "would welcome further guidance" on defining contribution to the community – there is no recognition of it in their policy at present or plans to bring it in.
- Newcastle City Council. Opposes preference for armed forces: "We could foresee forces applicants constantly leap frogging other urgent cases."
- Barnsley Metropolitan Borough Council. "We do not envisage, at this time, looking to award additional priority to applicants contributing to the community." They have actually ceased to give preference to those in work or actively seeking work as this caused "pressures on the reducing stock of available homes from competing applicants."
- Oxford City Council. Says that their "current scheme does not give those serving in the Forces greater priority." They add that : "The current scheme does not give priority to those in work, seeking work or otherwise contributing to the community. It is not envisaged at this time that we will do so."
- Bassetlaw District Council. Opposes preference to armed forces, those in work, those seeking work or those making a community contribution. "Not currently re-considering the policy."
- London Borough of Merton. They say: "We feel that there are considerable equalities issues to consider when framing an allocation scheme around those in work, in training or volunteering. We will need to have regard to our duties under the equalities legislation." Let us assume, just for a moment, that this concern is valid. It means we have a Labour council saying it can't implement Labour policy due to the equalities legislation. Will Mr Miliband support amending this legislation to allow his policy to be implemented?
- Liverpool City Council. No plans to reward work or community contribution: "It was felt, particularly where individuals had the same housing needs, it was unfair to apply additional criteria to anyone who volunteered and could prove to be discriminatory."
- Hull City Council. Oppose rewarding work or volunteering on grounds that "it would potentially be very difficult to administer."
- Stoke-on-Trent Council. "During consultation on the revised Allocations Policy in Spring 2011 it became evident that local stakeholders did not favour the idea of community contribution so this was removed from early drafts." Work will not be rewarded as "it was perceived that those in work should be able to afford other options."
- Harlow Council. In its submission it says that rewarding work and volunteering "could be labelled discriminatory and open to challenge."
- St Helens Council. "Benefiting from community work would engender cynicism/tension within the local community."
- Wolverhampton Council. Rewarding work or a community contribution "has not been a change that has been considered in Wolverhampton at this time."
- Norwich City Council. "No, the council's allocation scheme does not provide for some priority to be given to people who are in work, seeking work, or otherwise contrbuting to the community. There are no current plans to revise the scheme."
- North East Derbyshire. "Elected members have indicated that they would not amend the Allocations Policy to allow additional preference for these groups."
- Sandwell Council. No priority to work or volunteering and "No forthcoming changes proposed at present."
- Camden Council. The armed forces "may not be given greater priority under Camden's Allocations Scheme, given the acute level of housing need locally." Regarding those in work or volunteering "there may be some reluctance to use this flexibility in the current economic climate."
I'm afraid that it is not only Labour councils who have given negative responses but some Conservative ones too.
- Cheshire East Council. Oppose giving preference to those in or seeking work or making a community contribution because it would be "unfair." They said giving "favourable preference to those in employment" could mean that others would "have a claim under Section 8 of the Human Rights Act." They also gave administrative convenience as an excuse for leaving their policy as it is. The extra work for staff "would not be a lean process." (If that was a serious point they should slash their 8,000 housing waiting list by ending the time wasting pretence that those in a low priority band have a chance of ever getting a council tenancy.)
- Chelmsford Council. This submission included the most astonishing anti localist comment from a local authority I have ever seen. They say they don't give housing preference to the armed forces and won't be doing so on the grounds that if the Government favour it they should make it a "mandatory requirement for every LA to follow and not leave it to the individual discretion of an LA to pick up as part of their individual Allocation Policies." The council opposes preference for those in or seeking work or making a community contribution as they are "concerned of the possible discriminatory effects."
- South Gloucestershire Council. The council "does not intend to revise its allocation scheme" which "does not provide priority on this basis." (Being in work, seeking work, community contribution.) However "the response of other local authorities will be monitored." Not very heroic.
- North Somerset Council. No preference to reward a community contribution or work. They have "concerns around the practicalities" of doing so.
- North West Leicestershire District Council. "Without a definition of what 'contributing to the community' means we feel that this criterion is open to abuse and if left entirely to local authorities will be a post code lottery." (Give me strength.)
- East Staffordshire Borough Council. In a staccato submission they make clear their opposition to preference for armed forces, those in or actively seeking work, or those making a community contribution.
- Isle of Wight Council. "It is not felt that those having served in the Armed Forces should get any significantly greater preference than those also in housing need on the register." Rewarding those in work "could be very demoralising for those unable to gain work to also be unable to gain adequate housing if they are penalised for not being in work."
- Wychavon District Council. They have decided against rewarding work or a community contribution as: "We have consulted around the issue previously and it wasn't supported by a majority." (They don't say how many "key stakeholders" responded to this consultation. I wonder if the councillors, who are elected by the residents and are actually supposed to make the decisions, have any involvement in what is going on?)
- Staffordshire Moorlands. "Not considering" any reward for those in work, seeking work, or making community contribution.
- Chichester District Council. Regarding preference for the armed forces the council "is not in favour of this proposal as it could lead to a distortion of the allocation scheme by giving undue preference to people who have served in the armed forces. it also potentially discriminates against women." It also opposes prefence for work and volunteering as "it is not convinced that giving preference to this group is an equitable way to approach this issue." There is not a single Labour councillor on Chichester – yet it is effectively a Socialist council.
- East Lindsey District Council. "We would struggle to justify giving priority to those already in work." A comment that spectacularly misses the point that rewarding work is a mechanism for reducing unemployment.
- Tamworth Borough Council. A policy to reward work "would be all but impossible to manage."
- Harborough District Council. Concerned that rewarding volunteeriing "would mean that we are giving housing to the 'great and the good' not just those in housing need."
- Crawley Council. "We have no plans at present to revise our allocatons scheme in the light of this guidance."
- Maldon District Council. The "further level of complexty" in having a policy to reward work or volunteering is "not something that is being considered at the moment."
- South Norfolk Council. No plans to reward work or community contribution as it claims "there was not much support for the idea."
There was also a discouraging response from the few remaining Lib Dem councils:
- Portsmouth City Council. Among the reasons given for rejecting the idea that contribution to the community be a consideration in housing allocation, the council said: "This will drive in the behaviour of people 'chasing' additional priority and does not mean any 'contribution to the community' will be sustainable." What I think this means is that if a commmunity contribution is rewarded in Portsmouth then the number of people making a community contribution in that city would increase. This is a calamity that the Lib Dem council are determined must be averted.
- Cambridge City Council. Do they intend to give greater priority for those who have served in the armed services? "No, not unless this is prescribed by the guidance, in which case we will comply." They add that: "We do not offer any priority for those seeking work or otherwise contributing to the community" and won't be doing so.
- Bath and North East Somerset Council. "No," is the blunt response to whether they will be giving any preference to the armed forces, those in work, seeking work or making a community contribution.
- Hinckley & Bosworth Borough Council. Would not give preference to ex servicemen due to "equalities concerns." Then, in identical wording to Harborough, say that rewarding volunteeriing "would mean that we are giving housing to the 'great and the good' not just those in housing need."
- Northumberland County Council. No priority given to work or volunteering and "not currently considering revising our policies in this respect."
It is not all gloom. There are plenty of councils that have responded positively. But how disturbing that so many nominally Conservative councils are so abjectly failing to implement Conservative policies in this crucial respect.