(No) Lifetime Guarantee – In Defence of Scrapping Lifetime Tenancies

There has been much furore from the #ukhousing community re: proposals to scrap council lifetime tenancies, but is the backlash justified?

There has been much furore from the #ukhousing community re: proposals to scrap council lifetime tenancies – is the backlash justified, or is the sector ‘crying wolf’ again?

The Story

You’ve probably heard the news by now: lifetime tenancies are to be scrapped.

An amendment to the Housing and Planning Bill 2015 means that after the bill comes into force new secure council tenancies will be of a period of 2-5 years, rather than traditional ‘lifetime’ tenancies.

I’ve been an outspoken supporter of social housing, railing against the idiocy of right-to-buy – both in its classic and recently extended forms – and extolling the virtues of a large-scale building programme of social housing, which, short of regulating rents in the private rented sector, is probably the best way of addressing a growing housing benefit bill…so, I’m opposed to the scrapping of lifetime tenancies, right?

Well, at the risk of alienating much of the #ukhousing community, my initial reaction, perhaps controversially…is that I don’t necessarily have a problem with it.

Initial Reaction – Of Fears & Benefits

One of the main arguments against the scrapping of lifetime tenancies is that shorter tenancies risk creating uncertainty and instability for families…but why?

Firstly, the change does not affect existing council tenants – lifetime tenancies are simply not available for new secure tenancies – so all your current council families have nothing to worry about (barring changes to succession rights, but that’s a different blog altogether…)

Secondly, there is nothing to say that new tenants on fixed term tenancies are going to be kicked out of their homes after 2-5 years; just that the tenancy is reviewed. In most cases, I don’t see why the tenancy can’t just be renewed for another 2-5 years – as long as conditions of tenancy are not broken and tenant is happy with where they are (more on this later), why would there necessarily have to be a change? Councils want to avoider, voids (!) because that entails a loss in rental income – take it from someone who works for a local authority, void turnaround times are a hot subject! It wouldn’t (financially) benefit councils to generate tenancy ‘churn’ by constantly dismissing tenants at the end of fixed terms.

Another argument against the change is that it will be more difficult for councils to create sustainable, settled communities – again, why? It is often argued that the best communities should be of mixed tenure, so why worry about change of tenancy period? To suggest ‘settled’ communities can only occur where lifetime tenancies (i.e. council housing) are present is to misrepresent both community and the value of other tenancies.

Conversely, I can see potential…well, if not benefits then opportunities for introducing fixed term tenancies.

Firstly, it provides a natural juncture for tenants to review their tenancy and explore other options (in conjunction with the landlord, of course – we are trying to have a relationship, not a dictatorship, right?) This isn’t about social tenants being ‘trapped’ or being pressured to move on but creating the space to look at options available in the housing market, which must be good for a more holistic awareness of the sector, both within and without.

It might well be that in this appraisal people decide they want to remain a social housing tenant. Great – that’s what I’d expect! What fixed term tenancies will do is provide an opportunity for both tenant and landlord to reflect on the product they are offering, which may help engender greater pride and appreciation and, thereby, more cohesive and supportive communities.

Of course, councils shouldn’t expect automatic respect for offering social housing – it should be earned via the quality of the product delivered.  For councils, this is an opportunity for reflection and an incentive for innovation. Rather than assume tenants are with them for life, they should instead realise that the business must make its case for continued patronage every 2-5 years, and this urgency might be just the kick up the arse some local authorities need to take risks and innovate for the benefit of their tenants.

The Chartered Response

All of which is not to say I whole-heartedly endorse the idea of scrapping lifetime tenancies. There are important details to be worked, many of which are touched on by David Pipe of the Chartered Institute of Housing in his blog on the aforementioned amendment.

The CIH’s response re: fixed term tenancies covers three broad comments:

  • Landlords should determine tenancy renewal criteria at the end of fixed term tenancies; this should be done at the local level.
  • The length of fixed term tenancies offered should be 2-10 years, rather than 2-5 years; this would provide more security (for families with children) and reduce the administration burden on local government.
  • Freedom to continue offering open-ended / lifetime tenancies where necessary; again, this is best determined at the local level.

Salient points, all. Well, I don’t believe that ‘increased administrative burden’ is a valid argument – it’s the equivalent of a child whining ‘I can’t be bothered’ when faced with a new chore, and has previously been used in part to block the extension of the FOI act to HAs (another apparently controversial housing proposal I had no issue with…)

However, David’s assertion that it is imperative councils keep control of tenancy review criteria is key to making this proposal workable is absolutely accurate. As long as council’s can review tenancies using their own locally set and agreed upon criteria, I see no reason why the proposal would cause disruption or harm – councils want to avoid needless tenancy churn, so fears re: the cost of moving home, insecurity, etc. would be mitigated.

The same is also true of the retained ability to grant lifetime tenancies in the exception, rather than as standard – as long as these exceptions are at the council’s discretion, why the worry?

Of course, you might ask why strip away guaranteed lifetime tenancies at all – indeed, why not extend this option to private landlords?

The question of security is an important one to ask, and it has wider repercussions than just this proposal.

A Question of Security?

There has been talk about what the ‘elevator pitch’ for social housing is, and for this we really need to define what social housing is.

Simply put: are lifetime tenancies are necessary component of what social housing is? If so, why?

Have you asked yourself this question? When you do, what’s your answer? Is it, ‘that’s the way it’s always been’? Danger, Will Robinson! We’re now dealing with the problem of induction – remember, robust responses stand outside of tradition.

If the anger around this proposal stems from a belief that fixed term tenancies are necessarily insecure, what are we saying about the private rented sector? That the only valid options for a secure life are home ownership or traditional council tenancies? That seems dismissive.

Are we saying that the only significant thing about social housing is the lifetime tenancy? Reductive, right? Are there no other benefits to having a local government landlord as opposed to a private one? Of course there are! Okay, so what are the benefits, aside from length of tenancy?

Let’s ask the question. Let’s start mapping out what the social housing product really is, and to do so in a way that doesn’t just rely on nostalgia. We want social housing to remain relevant, but most things that stay relevant do so because they are open to challenge…and, when necessary, change.

Conclusion

Don’t get it twisted – I haven’t abandoned the fight for social housing. I don’t believe that fixed term tenancies necessarily beget social mobility…but nor do I believe that the proposal to scrap lifetime tenancies for new council tenants is necessarily a bad thing. It just isn’t setting off my ‘spidey sense‘ for poor policy in the way that the recent right-to-buy extension did, for example.

Maybe I’m wrong? It wouldn’t be the first time; it won’t be the last. Maybe I’m missing the point, or being a hypocrite, or am just being hopelessly, unhelpfully naive….

…or maybe, as long as councils get to set local review criteria for fixed term tenancies, the proposal isn’t as dangerous as everyone’s making out?

You may believe the government want the proposal to undermine social housing tenants – and that might be true for some individuals – but I don’t believe councils will enact the proposal in a way that does so. They’re better than that.

We should trust local government landlords to do the right thing, to honour the duty they have to their tenants – strong relationships between council landlords and tenants will support this. The rest of us should be prepared to have sensible discussions about how they do so before we start crying wolf again.

References

A Bitter Pill To Swallow, Red Brick, Online: https://redbrickblog.wordpress.com/2015/12/11/a-bitter-pill-to-swallow/, Available: December 2015

Conservative Minister Says Ending Lifetime Council Tenancies Will ‘Help Social Mobility’, The Guardian, Online: http://www.theguardian.com/society/2015/dec/10/conservative-minister-ending-lifetime-council-tenancies-help-social-mobility, Available: December 2015

Ending Lifetime Council Tenancies Will Only Lead To Insecurity, Centre for Labour and Social Studies, Online: http://classonline.org.uk/blog/item/ending-lifetime-council-tenancies-will-only-add-to-housing-insecurity, Available: December 2015

Government To Strip Children Whose Parents Die Of Automatic Right To Stay In Their Family Council House, The Independent, Online: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/government-to-strip-children-whose-parents-die-of-right-to-stay-in-their-council-home-a6767846.html, Available: December 2015

Lifetime Tenancies Are To Be Scrapped, Inside Housing, Online: http://www.insidehousing.co.uk/lifetime-tenancies-are-to-be-scrapped/7013121.article, Available: December 2015

Rant About Rent #4: Short Term Thinking, Bloody Nora’s Big Gob, Online: https://bigspads.wordpress.com/2015/12/11/rant-abour-rent-4-short-term-thinking/, Available: December 2015

“Sometimes lifetime tenancies are much more appropriate” by David Pipe, CIH, Online: http://www.cih.org/news-article/display/vpathDCR/templatedata/cih/news-article/data/Sometimes_lifetime_tenancies_are_much_more_appropriate, Available: December 2015

The Great Divide, Kevin Williams, Online: https://kevinwilliamshousing.wordpress.com/2015/11/02/the-great-divide/, Available: December 2015

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2 comments

  1. Social housing becomes a ghetto of tenants who only (a) cannot afford and by way of means test a private rented property or home ownership, and (b) a ghetto of those unable to work such as the sick and disabled; and (c) those not expected to work eg pensioners and single parents with the youngest child under 3 (though they will be caught by the benefit cap in 2016 anyway.)

    What this policy seeks and what it will achieve is social housing as the flimsiest of flimsy safety nets and nothing more.

    CORRECTION – scrap all references to pensioners as the Tories are also massively cutting HB to them by capping it at the LHA rate (see http://wp.me/p1vuvL-1ON )

    As such social housing – the old council housing model created in the Welfare State to slay the giant evil of SQUALOR is reduced and reduced and reduced until that safety net has 30 feet between each net and just about everyone falls through these huge holes!

    You still care to map put what the social housing product is and will become?

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