Is security of tenure the enemy of justice?

Earlier in the year, David Cameron did a bit of “thinking aloud” on social housing and set the cat among the pigeons by questioning the security of tenure that social housing tenants currently enjoy. Using the kind of populist rhetoric that the coalition has become so adept at, Cameron’s idea was couched in terms of “fairness”, and security of tenure was recast as “homes for life”. It’s a clever technique. Ask Mr and Mrs Bloggs if they think we should make tenure less secure, they will probably say no. But ask them if it’s fair for people to be given a home for life at the taxpayer’s expense, and they’ll almost certainly say no to that as well. Today, Grant Shapps was airing his boss’s ideas once again, and putting a bit of flesh on the bones. New social tenancies are to be offered for an initial 2-year period, after which time an assessment is to be undertaken by their landlord to see if their circumstances after the two years would still qualify them for social housing. If not, they’ll be given 6 months to find other accommodation.

When the Prime Minister first floated his ideas on tenure, I cautioned against a knee-jerk response from the left, or from the champions and bureaucrats of social housing generally. The housing crisis in England is so severe, and its problems so intractable, that just going ahead with business as usual is no more socially responsible, or self-evidently morally superior, than the loosening of security of tenure. In that previous post, I argued that one of the most fundamental problems with housing in this country is that the private market of home ownership, and the publicly-funded market of social housing operate on different financial planets, and that the flow between them is virtually non-existent. Measures such as the right-to-buy and intermediate products such as the various flavours of shared-ownership have had marginal consequences at best in terms of increasing this flow between public and private housing.

I won’t repeat my argument for imposing a steeply tapered capital gains tax on the excessive and socially divisive profits that accrue from home ownership. I maintain that something along these lines is necessary if we are at all serious about making housing in this country operate as a single multi-tiered market in which the public and private sectors play complementary roles, and in which movement between them is possible. Until something is done to tackle house prices, we will continue to maintain a sharp division in our society between the housing haves and have-nots. Not that that’s the only miserable consequence. The whole financial crisis which continues to buffet us via austerity budgets and banking bail-outs is intimately connected with the South-Sea bubble in housing that we have conspired to create with our fetish for home ownership and our love affair with this one specific form of inflation.

We know that as in every market, unless we can create a more sustainable balance between supply and demand, then prices will continue to be driven up. We have to increase supply. But the Irish experience, with their 300,000 empty and unsaleable properties, should teach us that supply of bricks and mortar is not the only lever on the market. The supply of fantasy money has a role to play as well. So it is plain to see that if we really want to address our housing market dysfunction we have to build more houses, and lend more responsibly. This latter is not what we’re currently doing. Throwing the pendulum abruptly from ridiculous laxity in lending to ridiculous restriction on lending is not “lending more responsibly”.

But back to security of tenure. Whilst we have 1.8 million families (5 million individuals) on the social housing waiting list, and no immediate prospect of building our way out of the problem, then I do not see how turning an ideologically blind eye to the nature of tenure is a justifiable way of proceeding. Don’t think about this in the deceitful rhetoric of houses for life, or nebulous notions of fairness. Think about it in terms of the classic socialist values of need. If the needs of those waiting in desperation for social housing that never comes are greater than the needs of some of those already in social housing, in which version of socialism is it OK to say to the former, “Tough!”?

It’s important that I emphasise that I am not supporting the coalition’s policy initiative as it stands, because they are refusing to attack this problem from both ends. They are happy to do the bit that puts relatively poorer people in jeopardy, but they are not willing to tackle the bit that might jeopardise the interests of those who’ve made a killing out of an insane private housing market. But if they were, then I genuinely think that some kind of review of tenure is justifiable. The objective here is to try and arrive at a seamless housing market that encompasses public and private renting, as well as all the shades of outright and partial home ownership. Reducing security of tenure in social housing must be balanced by increased security of tenure in private renting. Moving from public renting to private renting should be an economic issue, not an issue of security. Finally, we need to do more to encourage and to create mixed communities. Moving on from social renting to private renting might be less daunting if it means only moving around the corner, and at the same time mixed communities work against the creation of ghettos of worklessness, impoverishment, and social pathology.

What is clear is that the housing market – as a whole, not just social renting – is broken and dysfunctional. Housing is not a means to fantasy wealth, but a means to a sustainable, decent home. If your interest is in making money, please find another way of doing it. But I do believe that the current system of absolute security of tenure in the social sector is an affront to justice. However, the coalition will not get my support for changing this until it presents it as part of an overall package for the housing problems that afflict our society so badly. There’s absolutely no sign of them doing that, unfortunately.


7 thoughts on “Is security of tenure the enemy of justice?

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention Is security of tenure the enemy of justice? « The At-Long-Last-I've-Got-a-Job Blog --

  2. Of course Billy, if you just scrap the planning system most of your supply problems go away. And – over a relatively short time – the over-valuation of housing disappears too.

    But then, that’s too bleedin’ obvious 🙂

  3. I think suggesting we deflate the housing market, although exactly the right thing to do, is what you’d call a “massive vote loser” since the majority of people are already on the homeownership ladder. This means that if you want to achieve this you need to do it in a way that you don’t describe as reducing house prices.

    • I’m of course aware of the political difficulties here – although I had a previous exchange with someone whose left-ness makes me look like some kind of neo-conservative, and their argument seemed to be to abolish the private ownership of housing altogether. That’s the kind of policy which first requires getting rid of the inconvenience of voting altogether, I suspect!

      But there might be a bit more support for at least mitigating house price inflation than you might think. The percentage of home-owners is now on the way down, and a lot of that bottled-up demand is living in its parents’ spare bedrooms, much to those parents’ dismay. So perhaps, at last, the insanity and impossibility of constant double-digit house price inflation is beginning to sink in, even to those who’ve benefited from it. After all, in London one now needs to earn £100K even to get on the housing ladder, never mind climb it.

      It would certainly take political courage. A bit like the courage the coalition has shown in sacking public sector workers, and in its unseemly haste in driving down the deficit! 😉

  4. Great post, as always.

    Just a small point I’d like to make, if I may. The government is bringing in a policy which many voters will agree with (i.e the homeowners who are fed up subsidising the ‘undeserving poor’) but i am not convinced that it will have much impact on reducing the waiting lists for social housing. A couple of obvious reasons for this is that a huge proportion of those who access traditional social housing (and not the intermediate options that HA and ALMO’s offer) are either unemployed or underemployed. Employment is often low-paid, unskilled and insecure. The economic circumstances of the majority do not improve after two years of taking up a tenancy. (If i were to take a wild stab in the dark, I’d say it takes about 5 years from the start of a tenancy before many tenants can start to consider entering the private sector).
    Tenants WILL be put off from trying to improve their financial circs if their home is at risk and how can this be good for any of us? I used to work as a Money Adviser and Welfare Benefit Adviser for Citizens Advice and despite clients finding that they could be better off each month (£100’s a month in some cases) they preferred the stability of their benefits. This wasn’t a few isolated cases, this was the overwhelming opinion!
    As a Housing Officer I would get countless calls from tenants worrying about taking a job incase this threatened their tenancy. (I would also get calls from members of the public telling me that tenants had jobs so shouldn’t they be evicted. Many people think that social housing is free and only for the unemployed, the introduction of these policies may come as a surprise). Privately rented accommodation can be fraught with pitfalls and is a daunting prospect for many. Many will decide that it will be much easier to stay earning the minimum wage or not earning at all than to have to face this.
    Of the thousands of social housing tenants i have come into contact with over the last 5 years or so, there really are not that many that have been in a position to leave after 2 years. With the government axing funding to just about every support option available to help social housing tenants get a ‘leg up’ (i.e employment support, family intervention, community development etc etc) I just can’t see these measures being effective.

    That’s my opinion anyway!

    • Thank you!

      Of course, as Grant Shapps said himself, allowing social housing providers to re-assess eligibility after 2 years does not mean that 2-year tenancies will become the norm, and I don’t think anyone supposes that that is likely. So the new tenure could deal with the length of time it might take an “average” tenant to reach a level of financial strength that would signal the end of their eligibility for social housing, even if that was 5 or 10 years down the track.

      As in all these things, the detail is what matters, and at the moment that is perhaps inevitably lacking. But the main point that is being made through these changes, and the one that I’m arguing here is hard to be against as a matter of immutable principle, is that the needs of those on social housing waiting lists have to be balanced against those of existing tenants, and that is clearly not the case at the moment. But my issue of principle is not about the sanctity of security of tenure, but about having an overall housing market that meets the needs of all as fairly and as equitably as possible, and does not allow some to amass unearned wealth at the expense of others being permanently homeless.

  5. In our local authority there seems to be some unspoken law of inheritance with regard to council housing, time and again we witness elderly people, often the original tenants, pass away and their family swiftly stepping in to exercise their right to buy. They rarely live in the properties, preferring to set themselves up as private landlords. It’s shocking.

    It’s too easy for people to bemoan the unfixability of the housing crisis on Maggie, and I include myself.

    My sister and her children live in a 2 bedroom council flat. Given that it’s the lowest council tax band, lowest rent bracket and she’s now working it makes sense that she be re-assessed. She could be moved to a bigger, more expensive local authority property freeing up her starter flat for someone else… a sort of local authority property ladder.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s