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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
8 February 2013

Council housing by tristam sparks on flickr Feb 2013

Ever 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


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