Thoughts on politics and life from a liberal perspective

Thursday, 5 August 2010

Reviewing council tenancies - why not?

David Cameron set the cat amongst the pigeons yesterday by seemingly off-the-cuff suggesting that the current situation where people can stay in council houses effectively for life may be reviewed during a Q&A session.

He particularly focused on the sort of situation where a family living in for example a four bedroomed house where the children have left home but the parents are then allowed to remain in the house could be questioned.

I have to say I agree. If people's circumstances change, then surely it is right for the housing situation to also be reviewed? This is not least because for every empty room in a council house there will be someone on a waiting list who needs a home of their own. A system that allows a more fair and equitable (and efficient) division of the available housing resource is surely something that is desirable?

Of course we do not want to end up in a situation where people are being kicked out of their homes with nowhere else to go. Apparently Labour looked at something like this before the election but backed off "when they saw the pitfalls". I have no doubt there are some. There always are when reforming a complex system. I cannot imagine it is beyond the wit of man to reasonably work around them though.

With private renting or home owning people move all the time as their circumstances change. I always rented privately until I purchased my own home in 2004 and I lived in 11 different houses/flats between 1992 and then. That was almost one move per year. In two cases it was forced upon me by fickle landlords who decided they wanted to do something different with the house/flat (nothing to do with my behaviour I should be clear). In the other cases it was that my circumstances had changed either in terms of my job or in terms of geographical considerations. Towards the end I would have loved security of tenure in my privately rented accommodation but that is not how it works. I blogged about it at length last year here.

One other point on this. On Iain Dale's show last night, Denis MacShane suggested that it was not a good idea for this reform to be led by an "Eton Toff". This sort of rhetoric is extremely unhelpful. If MacShane does not like the proposal then he should argue against it (although he actually seemed to think it had some merit) rather than go in for ad hominen attacks based on class. We all saw how they backfired in the Crewe by-election in 2008.

So in summary, the idea that council tenants could need to be a bit more flexible given their circumstances seems like a good principle to me. Simon Hughes has already protested that this was not in the coalition agreement. Fair point, so it will require some internal debate within the coalition to make sure concerns of both parties are taken into account. That should not stop something though if it can be shown to be a good reform.


The Grim Reaper said...

I do hope you weren't seriously expecting a more intelligent contribution to the debate from the likes of Denis MacShane. Putting it politely, the man is a complete idiot.

Although if he wants to go down the money route, that's his choice. Similarly, I am entitled to point out that this is the man who claimed £125,000 over a 7 year period to cover the costs of running his official constituency base. Which just happens to be a garage in his Yorkshire home. And who is he supporting in the Labour leadership contest? The millionaire David Miliband, who owns a £1.5million home in Central London? I don't recall hearing him complaining about the wealth of the Milibands.

But there'd obviously be no cushy shadow cabinet job to be had from slagging off the Milibands, would there?

Braveheart said...

Mark writes :"Denis MacShane suggested that it was not a good idea for this reform to be led by an "Eton Toff". This sort of rhetoric is extremely unhelpful. If MacShane does not like the proposal then he should argue against it (although he actually seemed to think it had some merit) rather than go in for ad hominen attacks "

So isn't it ironic that the first comment is nothing more than an ad hominem attack on Denis McShane?

Seems Mark doesn't mind ad hominem publishing attacks on people he sees as political opponents*...

Principle, eh?

*at this particular moment. Who knows, by this time next next week Denis McShane might be the brightest most moral exemplar in Parliament...

Ian Eiloart said...

There's already the "Tenants Incentive Scheme", which allows councils (and Housing Associations) to offer money to tenants who are "under-occupying" housing, to encourage them to take a council house more suited to their needs. The money isn't a huge amount, but would more than offset moving costs, and would probably represent quite a good windfall for someone who qualifies for council housing.

I don't know exactly what Cameron had in mind, but I would think that certain safeguards should be put in place.

First, existing tenants should not be included. They've made their life plans with security of tenure in mind, and that should not be whipped away.

Second, fixed term tenancies should be for a long period. At least five years, and maybe ten. At that end of the income scale, it's really hard to find alternative accommodation.

Third, tenants should have a right to renew their tenancy unless (a) the council can offer them more suitable alternative accommodation, or (b) they no longer have an identifiable housing need, with the benefit of doubt going to the tenant in marginal cases.

Fourth, when a tenancy comes to an end, and isn't to be renewed, there should be a good period of notice, and a clear right to appeal.

Put all of those things in place, and we can see that this can't be a deficit reduction measure. In fact, no council housing will be freed up until the first new tenancies come up for renewal.

Emma Burnell said...

Why should people who are or have been poor lose the benefits that go along with having a home and community, simply becuause they are now, or have been poor?

If I tried to force someone's parents out of the home they have lived in all their lives, simply because the market needed more large homes for families I'd be - quite rightly - villified.

There is a housing crisis in this country. The solution isn't to remove people from their homes and communities because they have managed to improve their circumstances. This will not only disincentivise social mobility, but also lead to ghettos of poverty where people have no long term attachement to their communities. The solution is to build more homes.

Alix said...

I agree, I can't see what's so monstrous about this idea. There's plenty worse the government has done that Simon Hughes could be opposing more usefully, I think.

And although I agree with Emma Burnell's main point that the ultimate solution to all this is to build more housing, I think this is an interesting comment:

"If I tried to force someone's parents out of the home they have lived in all their lives, simply because the market needed more large homes for families I'd be - quite rightly - villified."

Nope, wrongly. I'd back you up. What you've described here is the exact argument used by Conservatives whenever anyone mentions land value tax or raising IHT. The argument goes "but what about the poor little old lady in her great big house she's lived in for 40 years? why should she be forced to move because she can't pay the tax?"

The fact is, most people are forced to move at many points in their lives, as Mark has described. They choose their accommodation and the area where they live based on their needs, their means and whether they can get a job, and when their circumstances change, they have a rethink.

It might well be a painful rethink, because most of us probably can't live exactly where we want or in the kind of property we'd like to. There's no way I could afford to live where I grew up, for example. In fact, my parents couldn't afford to stay there once they retired, either, and they'd lived there for 35 years. That they were settled in the community didn't give them any sort of right to special treatment - they had to make a decision based on what they could afford. Choosing your home to fit your circumstances is an economic fact of life and there's no reason why little old ladies - or council tenants - should be insulated from it.

Voter said...

Mark, you are right to point out the problems with what Mr MacShane said.

I would like to see the Lib Dems lead by example on this with less feeble knock-about and more logical and articulate defence.

Did you see my last post on my blog where I criticise Nick Clegg and his performance at PMQs?

Mark Thompson said...

@Braveheart - How on earth could you interpret what I said about MacShane as an ad hominem attack!? I have a problem with what he said, not who he is or where he comes from.

@Emma - I suppose my response has already been summarised by Alix. People have to move out of privately owned houses all the time for various reasons. Why should somebody who is living in a council house that is far too big for them be entitled to stay there for all time?

However I also agree that we should be building far more houses, but unless and until we have enough houses to fulfil need then we need to look at how we can more efficiently distribute what there is. (Declaration of interest: The company I run would benefit from an upswing in housebuilding although that is not why I am saying it).

Braveheart said...

unless you style yourself as "the gim reaper", I didn't accuse you of any such thing.....

Braveheart said...

should be grim, not gim...

Mark Thompson said...

@Braveheart - Fair enough. I misunderstood your comment.