Council housing shouldn’t just be for the poor

Martin Wicks, Secretary of Swindon Tenants Campaign Group, tells us why we must defend 'secure tenancies' for council tenants and resist means-tested council housing

February 8, 2013
6 min read

Council housing by tristam sparks on flickr Feb 2013Ever since 1980 council tenants have been ‘secure tenants’ under law, which gives us genuine security. We know that if we pay our rent and behave in a civilised fashion then we don’t face the prospect of being turfed out of our homes. We don’t face the insecurity which tenants do in the private rented sector.

However, this ‘secure tenancy’ is now under threat. All local authorities are in the process of drawing up a ‘Tenancy Strategy’ which must include the type of tenure it offers to its tenants. They now have the freedom to introduce ‘flexible’ or ‘fixed term’ tenancies in effect; temporary tenancies, for a number of years. Many councils are introducing five year tenancies, two years for some. The government’s rationale for these is that ‘social tenancies’ should provide a ‘safety net’ for when people are ‘in difficulties’, a tenancy ‘when it is needed for as long as it is needed’. In other words ‘social housing’ is conceived as a tenure only for the poor.

The coalition government doesn’t talk about ‘secure tenancies’. It prefers to call them ‘lifetime tenancies’. There is a propaganda purpose in this. It implies that it’s unreasonable to give tenants ‘a home for life’. In fact, a ‘secure tenancy’ is an open-ended tenancy, but it’s not necessarily for life. Tenants can be evicted for breaches of their tenancy agreement and are.

How will it work in practice?

Councils introducing fixed term tenancies have to draw up a set of criteria for deciding whether or not a tenancy is renewed or terminated. If the latter then the tenant will have to either find more expensive private rented accommodation or get themselves a mortgage, if they can.

Many councils are setting an income threshold above which a tenant will be considered not to ‘need’ the tenancy. For instance the Conservative administration in Barnet has set a threshold of £32,580 whereas Westminster has set one of £61,400 (for 1 and 2 bedroom households) or £74,000 (for 3 bedroom or greater). In the case of Westminster ‘capital assets’ (savings above £16,000) will be taken into account and ‘can be assessed as notional income’. Some authorities, including Labour ones, have decided that if there is a change in the composition of a household, say a child leaving home, then a tenancy which is ‘under-occupied’ will not be renewed. Although existing tenants will keep their ‘secure tenancies’ the annual turn over would over time see them dying out.

The party which prides itself as the defender of ‘individual liberty’, is proposing to give councils power to intrude into the lives of tenants as never before; the power to impose a means test on people who pay full rent; the power to move people from property to property without their agreement and against their will; the power to rigidly impose a ‘bedroom standard’ which originates from the 1930’s when overcrowding was far worse than today, and one bedroom for a couple alone, would have been a step forward.

The campaign so far

Tenants organisations and tenant activists are campaigning against the ending of ‘secure tenancies’ because it would mean that council housing would become a means-tested tenure. ‘Flexible tenancies’ would undermine our independence, introducing instability, making tenants fearful for their future.

The government’s ‘social housing’ policy is consistent with its suite of ‘welfare reforms’. It’s ‘bedroom tax’ is designed to pressure tenants into work and/or into smaller homes by cutting the meagre amount of money they have to live on, even though there is. The ‘flexible tenancy’ is designed to force people out of their homes if they earn ‘too much’ or if their children leave home.

At the TUC Congress in September a resolution from UCATT was passed which committed the TUC to campaigning not only for ‘a massive social house-building programme’ but for an end to the ‘right to buy’. However, to move forward to this we have to defend what we have. Currently there is not a very widespread appreciation of the implications of flexible tenancies and the further impoverishment of ‘social housing’ tenants. The campaign to defend secure tenancies needs to be stepped up. In particular those unions that voted for the TUC resolution, especially the big three which are affiliated to Labour (Unison, Unite, GMB) should be pressing hard for a commitment from Labour that if elected they will reintroduce ‘secure tenancies’ for all.

Although housing benefit is means tested, council housing, as such, has never been. The coalition government is treating it like it is charity, giving councils the right to evict tenants who have done nothing wrong. But council housing was built on a mass scale because private builders were not interested in building homes for poor working people. Today’s housing crisis will not be tackled unless there is a return to building council housing on a sufficiently large scale such that the numbers of households on the waiting list, 1.8 million, begins to decline rather than continuing to rise.

A local campaign

Swindon Tenants Campaign Group is campaigning locally for the continuation of ‘secure tenancies’ for all and pressing the Labour councillors not only to oppose fixed term tenancies but to make a public commitment to reintroduce ‘secure tenancies’ if they are forced through by the Tories (they only have a majority on one seat). Everywhere that ‘flexible’ tenancies are introduced there needs to be a campaign to end them, especially where Labour authorities have abandoned the principle of ‘secure tenancies’ for all tenants.

Read more about the Swindon Tenants Campaign Group


✹ Try our new pay-as-you-feel subscription — you choose how much to pay.

Utopia: Work less play more
A shorter working week would benefit everyone, writes Madeleine Ellis-Petersen

Short story: Syrenka
A short story by Kirsten Irving

Utopia: Industrial Workers Taking the Wheel
Hilary Wainwright reflects on an attempt by British workers to produce a democratically determined alternative plan for their industry – and its lessons for today

Mum’s Colombian mine protest comes to London
Anne Harris reports on one woman’s fight against a multinational coal giant

Bike courier Maggie Dewhurst takes on the gig economy… and wins
We spoke to Mags about why she’s ‘biting the hand that feeds her’

Utopia: Daring to dream
Imagining a better world is the first step towards creating one. Ruth Potts introduces our special utopian issue

Utopia: Room for all
Nadhira Halim and Andy Edwards report on the range of creative responses to the housing crisis that are providing secure, affordable housing across the UK

A better Brexit
The left should not tail-end the establishment Bremoaners, argues Michael Calderbank

News from movements around the world
Compiled by James O’Nions

Podemos: In the Name of the People
'The emergence as a potential party of government is testament both to the richness of Spanish radical culture and the inventiveness of activists such as Errejón' - Jacob Mukherjee reviews Errejón and Mouffe's latest release

Survival Shake! – creative ways to resist the system
Social justice campaigner Sakina Sheikh describes a project to embolden young people through the arts

‘We don’t want to be an afterthought’: inside Momentum Kids
If Momentum is going to meet the challenge of being fully inclusive, a space must be provided for parents, mothers, carers, grandparents and children, write Jessie Hoskin and Natasha Josette

The Kurdish revolution – a report from Rojava
Peter Loo is supporting revolutionary social change in Northern Syria.

How to make your own media
Lorna Stephenson and Adam Cantwell-Corn on running a local media co-op

Book Review: The EU: an Obituary
Tim Holmes takes a look at John Gillingham's polemical history of the EU

Book Review: The End of Jewish Modernity
Author Daniel Lazar reviews Enzo Traverso's The End of Jewish Modernity

Lesbians and Gays Support the Migrants
Ida-Sofie Picard introduces Lesbians and Gays Support the Migrants – as told to Jenny Nelson

Book review: Angry White People: Coming Face to Face With the British Far-Right
Hilary Aked gets close up with the British far right in Hsiao-Hung Pai's latest release

University should not be a debt factory
Sheldon Ridley spoke to students taking part in their first national demonstration.

Book Review: The Day the Music Died – a Memoir
Sheila Rowbotham reviews the memoirs of BBC director and producer, Tony Garnett.

Power Games: A Political History
Malcolm Maclean reviews Jules Boykoff's Power Games: A Political History

Book Review: Sex, Needs and Queer Culture: from liberation to the post-gay
Aiming to re-evaluate the radicalism and efficacy of queer counterculture and rebellion - April Park takes us through David Alderson's new work.

A book review every day until Christmas at Red Pepper
Red Pepper will be publishing a new book review each day until Christmas

Book Review: Corbyn: The Strange Rebirth of Radical Politics
'In spite of the odds Corbyn is still standing' - Alex Doherty reviews Seymour's analysis of the rise of Corbyn

From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation
'A small manifesto for black liberation through socialist revolution' - Graham Campbell reviews Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor's 'From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation'

The Fashion Revolution: Turn to the left
Bryony Moore profiles Stitched Up, a non-profit group reimagining the future of fashion

The abolition of Art History A-Level will exacerbate social inequality
This is a massive blow to the rights of ordinary kids to have the same opportunities as their more privileged peers. Danielle Child reports.

Mass civil disobedience in Sudan
A three-day general strike has brought Sudan to a stand still as people mobilise against the government and inequality. Jenny Nelson writes.

Mustang film review: Three fingers to Erdogan
Laura Nicholson reviews Mustang, Deniz Gamze Erguven’s unashamedly feminist film critique of Turkey’s creeping conservatism

What if the workers were in control?
Hilary Wainwright reflects on an attempt by British workers to produce a democratically determined alternative plan for their industry


128