in Politics

Breaking the surgery duck, but not positively

Someone came to my surgery on Saturday, though not as a result of my post (at least they didn’t mention it, if it was). I’m afraid that it doesn’t change my opinion on the value of surgeries, it’s still the first time anyone has attended a surgery session I’ve run for the life of this blog. And while looking through the surgery log it still seems to average about one attendee per session, I still think we could be more imaginative about the way we do these things.

But what really struck me on Saturday was the realisation that I’ve probably had to tell most of the people I’ve seen in 12 years of surgeries that I’m sympathetic, but just can’t help. Why? Not because I’m lazy or unwilling, but because I’d guess the bulk of my visitors at surgeries (like Saturday) are about re-housing. We have well-defined rules and policies when it comes to deal with housing applications, and obviously these can’t bend to suit the will of a councillor. I can check they have been correctly placed in the housing queue (make sure medical conditions or overcrowding have been correctly reflected, for example) but can’t do anything to get them a home any quicker.

What really struck me on Saturday was how the current housing system of secure tenancies fail the people who need them. I’ve touched on the subject before and – without breaking any confidences – the case I saw on Saturday was typical example of how those in need are let down.

It was a family in severely overcrowded accommodation. And, realistically, their only option was to sit and wait.

We know we have properties that are big enough, but we also know that people are reluctant to leave them, even when they don’t need all the rooms, all the time – often they want to keep spare rooms for when family visit. We therefore end up ‘buying’ rooms by offering an incentive payment for people who release a larger property.

The family who are waiting could look to the private sector. But that doesn’t have the same security, and they will inevitably move further down the queue for the large council property they want, so there is little incentive to take the risk. As a result people who do want a smaller property lose out because that hasn’t been freed up.

I’m not sure I have the answer. The council has an important role as a provider of housing, it is de facto the landlord of last resort. But it seems wrong that the secure tenancy means that the system moves so slowly that people can spend most of their life in a home that is the wrong size – first in an overcrowded house, then a few years in a house that’s the right size, then as children leave the home the rest of their lives in a house that’s too big!

I can see why people need to have security. But surely the balance is wrong when it leaves so many people without the home they should have.

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  1. Hi James.

    This is an important issue and drives all manner of other social problems and successes. We have similar problems in Shropshire (mixed in with the usual rural issues of sparsity, small communities and the cost of moving around). Doesn’t it really come down to shortage of supply. Build more houses, especially social rented house, and it will become easier to access them, it will also depress rents in the private sector which will be good for tenants (if not so much for landlords).

    Though that takes money of course, which is in particularly short supply at the moment.

    • Supply might be an issue, but the cost and nature in which they are available is just as big an issue. The current system, I would contend, doesn’t encourage the flexibility that a housing market needs because there are real disincentives to moving.

      A phrase I’ve used before is that social housing is a destination, rather than a launchpad, for too many people. We could build thousands of 4 and 5 bedroom houses, but in 20 years when the children had left home wouldn’t we be in the same position again, with their parents still in a secure tenancy and all their children needing large properties? I would imagine that for them it would seem the obvious and easy choice to remain within the state sector.

      I’m aware that it’s a debate in which I might risk sounding a bit ‘Daily Mail’, and it might well be that what I’m posing as a question is ultimately (perhaps sub-consciously) driven by my political philosophy that home ownership is desirable. Having said that, it is just as likely it reflects the prejudices of my left-wing working class parents and upbringing in which home ownership was the expectation and any reliance on the state was to be avoided.

      But as you say, possibly all these notions are trumped by the deficit, and regardless of personal or political prejudices, the question is how we most effectively use the supply we have to match the demand.