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How the Conservatives ruined social housing

Stuart Hodkinson writes that despite Tory claims to protect social housing before the election, councils have been allowed to neglect their duty to house those in greatest need
4 October 2012

Photo: lydia_shiningbrightly/Flickr

To all those shocked by revelations that quotas are being used to limit certain types of tenants from accessing new social housing in London’s Kings Cross Central development, I’ve got some bad news for you – this is what the future of social housing looks like in the Big Society.

Since coming to power in May 2010, the Coalition has gone to war on social housing and social tenants, especially in England and Wales, where the Localism Act 2011 mainly applies. Localism was sold to us by the Minister for Decentralisation, Greg Clark, as a new contract between people and the state to enable “a huge shift in power - from central Whitehall, to local public servants, and from bureaucrats to communities and individuals”

Sounds great, but as the Kings Cross scandal reveals, Localism in practice means something more sinister – the freedom for councils to abandon their social duty to house those in greatest need on the diktats of private developers who, like the Chief Whip, don’t want too many ‘plebs’ mixing with the new urban gentry.

The Localism Act is a charter for transforming social housing from the most secure and affordable form of shelter to a highly conditionalised and temporary tenure whose inhabitants need to express daily gratitude for the taxpayer’s generous hand. Social landlords can now restrict access to housing waiting lists on grounds of “need”, give priority on moral grounds to particular groups of “deserving”citizens, like service personnel and their families, on grounds of their sacrifice to the nation, and draw on greater powers to evict their anti-social tenants including convictions for the sort of criminality seen in the recent rioting.

Most significant of all is how the massive cuts in subsidies for new social house building – which has decimated supply when 1.8m households are languishing on council waiting lists, nearly 70% more than a decade ago – have been used to attack security of tenure and controls on rents in England and Wales. To get a grant, social landlords are being forced to build a more expensive, less secure form of housing called “Affordable Rent” with rents reaching 80% of local market levels and ‘flexible’ tenancies only legally guaranteed for two years instead of for life as before. The abolition of statutory lifetime tenancies has since been extended to all new social tenants from April 2012.

Less well known is that local councils and housing associations can also convert a proportion of their existing stock to Affordable Rent when they re-let homes, meaning that secure, low-rent social homes will be gradually replaced by far more expensive, insecure properties with dire implications for low-income tenants in London particularly.


If this sounds bad, wait until the ‘bedroom tax’ bites: from April 2013, welfare reform measures that have already cut housing benefit in the private rental sector will see “under-occupying” social tenants of working age across the UK lose 14% of their housing benefit for having one surplus bedroom and 25% for two or more. The government’s own figures – which almost always under-state the real impact – suggest that 660,000 households will lose on average £14 a week with 120,000 households losing more than £20 per week. Ministers, well-versed in Orwellian double-speak, say it’s all about fairness – to the taxpayers’ subsidising the ‘spare rooms’ and to those forced to live in overcrowded conditions or on waiting lists by the under-occupiers. But this is just nonsense. For families affected, what the state defines as a spare room will typically be a child’s bedroom; for many single tenants, this will have either been their home for decades or the only available home they were offered at the time due to the chronic shortages of social housing that resulted from earlier waves of privatisation and cuts.

Tenants will be forced to choose between greater poverty or moving home – but where will they go? Perhaps in the Coalition’s fantasy world, under-occupiers will magically swap with over-occupiers but in the real world this can’t happen for two simple reasons.

First, there is a general shortage of single occupancy social housing so people can’t downsize; and secondly, most of the over-crowding is in the South and most of the under-occupancy is in the North.

The Department for Work and Pensions’ own impact assessment spells out the consequences: “individuals may have to look further a field for appropriately sized accommodation or move to the private rented sector, otherwise they shall need to meet the shortfall through other means such as employment, using savings or by taking in a lodger or sub-tenant”.


When I spoke recently to a tenant in Leeds already suffering from depression and unable to work and now faced with this appalling choice, she broke down in tears and said she was thinking about killing herself , such was her anguish at the thought of being forced to either share her home with a total stranger or be moved out of her home and away from her friends and survival networks.

Deliberately misrepresenting social housing as the only subsidised tenure underpins the idea that under-occupancy is a social housing problem when official statistics show the phenomenon is far more acute in both the private rental and owner occupier sectors. It also underpins the Coalition’s tactic of associating social tenants as scroungers and social housing tenure as a cause of social disadvantage, when a key aim of Thatcherism was to ensure only households with the most acute social disadvantage could acquire a social housing tenancy.

Despite the obvious under-supply of social housing across the country, and most acutely in London, the Coalition wants us to believe that the real problem for this shortage lies within the social rented sector itself. How different it all looks now from David Cameron’s promise, just a week before the May 2010 General Election, that a Conservative Prime Minister would “support social housing… protect it, and…respect social tenants’ rights”. Not to mention his manifesto vow not to “allow the poorest people in Britain to pay an unfair price for the mistakes of some of the richest”

The post-election truth is that this was all pre-election subterfuge - a carefully planned PR operation by the Conservatives who dominate this Coalition to hide their real intentions of aggressively continuing and deepening the long-term assault on social housing and the welfare state that in many ways defined the Thatcherite project of neoliberalism.  Privatising public housing and eroding the hard-won rights of tenants has been central to this neo-liberal project precisely because of what social housing has historically represented – the most secure and affordable form of shelter that simultaneously curtails profit-making opportunities while rendering people less prone to flexible exploitation as workers. And this is exactly why the government of millionaires wants to destroy what’s left of it.

This article was originally published here in The Independent online, Monday 1 October


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Vanessa 4 October 2012, 17.42

I have twin boys both of whom have Autistic Spectrum Disorders. They needs care boh ay and night and are incapable of sharing a bedroom. Our so called ‘spare room’ is actually one of their bedrooms. We would have to manage without a lounge/living room (having a combined bedroom and lounge where my bed is in the lounge is not an option) or I would have to share with my 15 year old son if we downsized. The kitchen couldn’t be a lounge come kitchen bcause chances are it would be too small, my twins do not have enough safety awareness to be playing near a hot oven, and the mess they make when eating would mean they would have to go to bed after every meal even at 12 years of age just so I can clear up- and one twin would then go in the other’s bedroom after breakfast or lunch a cause chaos and that means no clearing up will get done as I can’t be in two places at once. There’s no after school clubs and very little (and so overly subscribed you have to take pot luck on what days you get or you’ll get nothing at all & even then you can end up wih nothing) holiday childcare for their age even for those with disabilities so there is no way I can work may way out of this situation even if could manage to do all the household chores, shopping, medical appointments etc with them at home so I can work during the day. We have no choice but deduct that money from somewhere else such as the amount of time they are in holiday childcare (so I can shop, clean, etc and so they can cope with the long school holidays which are too long for them- yes, they even ask if they can go back to school before the holidays are over even with holiday club for a few days each week for 5 weeks of it and without it they would be so bored they would become out of control due to boredum) or food.

Robert 4 October 2012, 19.25

Well of course the Tories are doing very little Labour did not do, tell me which party is in power today, because it’s dam hard to tell them apart.

Rupert Ferguson 5 October 2012, 01.20

The fundamental reason why none of the mainstream political parties, other than the Greens, who are becoming more and more mainstream as time progresses, have a sensible and well ordered policy on social housing is because none of their Parliamentary representatives (as opposed to their rank and file membership) actually live in it. Essentially, the mainstream political class aspire to living in their own publicly funded private domiciles subsidized by tax payers whose own mortgage commitments are made ever larger and more oppressive by the ever worsening, and largely artificially manipulated, shortage of affordable housing: whether social or otherwise. This was touched upon by Sir Alistair Graham at the time of the Parliamentary expenses scandal and is likely to continue until such time as the self serving element who have remained at the helm for decades are voted out once and for all!

Robert 12 October 2012, 06.56

Labour stated that Polish people did not get housing over the top of locals, yet we could see it, they said immigrants did not get housing above locals again we could see it with our own eyes.

The problem is of course if Immigrants turned up with sick disabled or children they took precedence over locals, and we saw it.

Reason why because Thatcher sold houses, labour did not build any, with MP’s saying I think we have had enough of sink hole estates.

Then we had of course MP’s who are now mainly upper middle class, who cannot for the life of them say council housing so the buzz word now especially for labour is affordable homes, which can mean houses to rent, houses to buy, or houses destined for a certain section of the public, Labours middle class.

We all remember Caroline Flints choice words, people in work need homes they get priority.

Then you had Blair who decided that the police doctors and nurses needed these social housing, oh yea I can see them living in some of the older houses.

Labour Tory the difference is not the colour of the ties any more, it’s not even policies, perhaps it’s how many millions the leader have.

Dawn 23 October 2012, 17.47

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