in Politics

Council houses, or homes?

Since I’ve moved to London I’ve had five main addresses, not including a couple of stints ‘between homes’. Effectively a different home every 2.6 years.

Of course, if I’d been living in social housing, that would have been one home for all that time – and, actually, if I were a social tenant the chances of me moving to London in the first place would have been close to nil.

The Prime Minister’s suggestion that we should consider fixed term tenures for council properties might or might not be the right way to go about it, but that does not mean he is wrong to look at the principle. The fact that the main criticism seems to have come from Simon Hughes and not the Labour party suggests to me that David Cameron isn’t the only person thinking that things need to change.

To my mind, it’s always worth looking at a service and asking the simple question: “If this didn’t exist, would we feel the need to create it?”

Sometimes the answer is no, there are services scattered around that the council are running mainly because of historical accident or because of a need that has long since passed.

Very often the answer is yes, but not like this. And that’s the case with council housing.

To my mind, council housing should be a safety net, or a starting point, but never an ambition or a destination. But for far too many social housing has become just that.

One of the problems is in allocation. Currently once you have a council house you get security of tenure, as long as you keep up the rent and don’t do anything to get yourself evicted you are there for life. In Wandsworth, that tenure can be inherited once, in some places there is no limit on inheritance. Never is need assessed once the property has been allocated. There is no other benefit that works like this.

There are reasons for security of tenure. It creates security to help change it from a house to a home, and means people can put down roots in an area and feel they are part of the community. But people who are in private sector housing are still able to do that, despite the fact that most people know their home is not likely to be their home for the rest of their lives. I do not feel any less a part of Wandsworth because I’ve moved a few times.

It creates problems and distortions. We have a huge waiting list for large properties, partly because many of those large houses only have one tenant because, although their children have left home, there is no incentive to leave a large house that is largely maintained by the council. In Wandsworth and many other place we resort to ‘buying’ people out, offering a cash incentive and help for them to move to a smaller so people with larger families who need the room can move in. Of course, it’s a constant battle because, over time, those children grow up and leave, creating exactly the same problem.

And it creates problems for people in social housing too. They are less mobile, because moving social housing is incredibly difficult, often reliant on arranging a ‘swap’. And moving to larger properties virtually impossible. A young couple will often face a choice between not having a family or having to cope with over-crowding for several years until they can move.

Because of the glacial pace allocations move – we need to wait for properties to become vacant – instead of being a supply of housing to those in most need, it has become a supply of housing to those in most need a few years ago. It’s easy to see why, once in a council flat or house, there’s not much incentive to leave even if you don’t need it. Much better to stay put, then you aren’t at the back of the queue if private sector doesn’t work out.

I suspect that for many of the people I come into contact with, facing years of over-crowding or keen to move closer to the support of their families, it’s David Cameron – not Simon Hughes – who’s more in touch with their needs.

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