Cllr Lee Rowley of Westminster Council on why we should break with social housing for life

The news that the Minister for Housing, Margaret Beckett, is hesitating on proposals to reform social housing   is one that should concern all of us who want a system which supports the most vulnerable in society.

Tonight, just short of 75,000 households will go to sleep in temporary accommodation whilst waiting for a permanent social housing property to become available.  This includes nearly 4,500 families with children waiting in hostels or bed and breakfast accommodation across the country.  Clearly, there is something wrong with a system that condemns people into often inappropriate accommodation for months, if not years.   

The government would like you to believe that the solution is simple; build. That is remarkably one-dimensional.  It also avoids a long-overdue debate about the purpose and best use of a social housing system which is supposed to support the most vulnerable in our society.

With a social housing stock numbering 4 million, shouldn’t the real
question be why we can’t accommodate these 75,000 ‘homeless’ households
already?  Are we really saying that in a dynamic and prosperous
society, four million households should have to rely on state support
in perpetuity?   

Well, actually, we’re not.  Conceptually, social housing is organised
around one key principle – that, once allocated a property, a tenant
retains it for life and, in some cases, can pass it to their children –
irrespective of whether that household is still ‘in need’ of public

The government’s own figures show that nearly 200,000 households were
granted their tenancies before Richard Nixon became US President.  And
because social housing rents are marked below market levels, that means
the state could effectively have subsidised a household by up to
£200,000 over a similar period – irrespective of how many of those 40
years such support was actually needed.  It is the equivalent of still
claiming child benefit on the day you qualify for Saga discounts,
simply because you too were young once.
Last month, the Chartered Institute for Housing became the latest group
to agree that the existing system was floundering.  The CIH proposed a
system of regular tenancy reviews to ensure that all tenants still
needing state support get it and, crucially, to identify tenants who
have successfully got back on their feet and who now might be able to
aspire to housing independence from the state.   

Even today, in a benefits system which doesn’t reward work, such a
group already exists.  Government figures suggest, for example, that at
least 260,000 social housing households contain one individual earning
in excess of the UK median gross annual earnings level.  That’s the
equivalent of a city the size of Sheffield.

How this physically translates into policy-making is a discussion still
to be had.  Encouragement into home ownership would seem a logical
step.  In Queensland, reviews are undertaken every 4 years and tenants
are served with ‘notices to leave’ if no longer in need of state
support.  Alternatively, a less intrusive policy might be to allow
individuals to retain their property, but move social rents up to the
market level over time, thus providing more resources to be spent on
the needy.

Of course, the government must honour its commitment to existing
tenants – and that commitment is to a home for life.  But, as new
tenancies are agreed, maybe some new thinking is necessary.  Shouldn’t
we say that support is available for as long as is genuinely needed,
but when it isn’t, don’t we have a compassionate duty to transfer that
support to others who remain vulnerable?

The bottom line is that our current housing system often fails the very
people that it seeks to support.  Labour often talks about
‘multi-pronged approaches’ to finding solutions.  Well, Margaret: here
is your chance.  By all means build.  But also look at who we want to
be supporting through social housing in the future.  Look to another
Margaret and return social housing to the purpose it was so successful
at in the 1980s – as a launchpad towards personal independence. The
very welfare of the most vulnerable in our society depends on it.

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