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Amelia Cookson says local authorities should offer different length tenancies to ease overcrowding in social housing.

The Local Government Information Unit (LGiU) in cooperation with Westminster City Council, launched a report today entitled Room to Move. It makes clear that politicians should reform social housing by opening up this issue of "tenure for life". This issue has become a stumbling block to proper management of council housing and has left millions of people in overcrowded housing and on waiting lists.

Social housing suffers twin problems of overcrowding and under occupancy. In 2006/07 there were 25,000 families who had two or more bedrooms fewer than they needed, even allowing for same sex children sharing rooms. There were 196,000 who were one bedroom short. At the same time there were 1.7 million people on council house waiting lists around the country – meaning all houses that become free are immediately snatched up to be allocated to those on the list most in need. And last year because of the downturn, the UK had the fewest new housing developments started for many years – only 90,000 homes, of which the bulk were in the private sector. This system is in urgent need of reform.

It should be relatively simple to solve these problems. However, the current tenancy arrangements ensure that it is not. And here is the irrationality: there is space out there, and it is in social housing. In 2006/07 there were 441,000 households living in social housing with two or more bedrooms than needed. That is almost exactly double the number of houses in overcrowded conditions. The obvious conclusion is that some people should move. The political minefield is that the route to do that is to make changes to tenure – making a link that doesn't currently exist between how long you keep a tenancy and how long you need it.

As it stands, everyone allocated a council house by law can keep that tenancy for life – and pass it on to their children – regardless of whether it still suits their circumstances. It is unfair to change the rules mid play – anyone with an existing tenancy would feel threatened by changes they weren't expecting.
However, it is very simple to offer a range of different length tenancies to new tenants. The truth is we don't know what people would choose if they had the choice. People's lives are very different, and they may be looking for a social tenancy for very different reasons. We call it a "mixed economy of tenure" – a change to the law so that new tenancies come in all shapes and sizes.

Think of it this way: if I have a mental health crisis, I may need social housing quickly, but only for a short period while treatment is stabilized. If I am a single parent with children, I may need a big house while my children live with me but know this will only last until they are grown up. If I had the option, I might choose a shorter tenancy if that meant getting a property much sooner. Councils could
think about creative packages – maybe tenancies that built equity and were designed as a stepping stone into ownership. There could be 15 to 20 year urban tenancies that transitioned into a first option on a smaller property in the suburbs. A range of policies could be enacted and some would work and become popular, others not. But until we try, we will never know.

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