25 November 2010

After the Second World War we began the long haul of rehousing people. By the 1950s we were, under Harold Macmillan, a Tory minister, building around 300 000 houses a year. By the 1980s it was going seriously wrong. The Thatcher Tories introduced the right-to-buy, rightly, but failed to ensure the stock of public housing was kept up, wrongly. They also introduced what Labour intended, lifelong tenancies for social/council housing tenants. (From this point I shall write social to include housing for rent described as social and housing association and council housing; and affordable to include such housing for rent and also lowcost housing for purchase under various schemes.)

Labour’s failure
Housing slipped down the priorities. The nadir was reached under Labour. Private houses as bubble assets flourished but public housing as homes for people was neglected. Labour has an abysmal record on the provision of affordable housing though it tried to improve in its last years in office.

Today, 1997+13, we have nearly two million on the housing waiting lists of England and many have no chance at all of getting social housing. There are around 17 000 on the
waiting list in Cornwall
at present, although the list presents problems as a measure of need.

Labour’s years of inaction and ineffectiveness on affordable housing are done with. I hope too we have done with suggestions that a focus on second homes is the answer.

Tory Libdem proposals
Now today we have the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats in government. There are now two ways in which we can meet the public housing needs of people. We can build more affordable houses or we can fiddle with the deckchairs. I am for building more but the Tory-Libdems have chosen the latter, rearranging those deckchairs.

They have announced proposals to change social housing rules and I wish to look at three which are especially problematic. They apply to new tenancies not present tenants.

The proposed rules say that social housing landlords will have the power to give new social tenants lifelong or limited tenancies; the latter can be for as little as two years. Additionally, the landlord will have the powers to evict, if they wish, tenants whose financial circumstances improve. The intention is to push them – I suppose encourage is the Tory Libdem term – into lowcost owner occupation or private rented property. Furthermore, councils and housing associations will have the power to raise, if they wish, their subsidised rents up to 80 percent of the local market rents. These higher rents are drolly named called “affordable”.

The government believes that the new rents and the £4.5 billion of central government funds (half the funding that was previously intended) will enable the provision of 150 000 additional social houses over the next four years. Iceberg? What iceberg?

What is a house for?
A house is not only a volatile financial asset, it is a home. It gives people a chance to settle and work in security, to become part of a community, to have a stake in our country and its safe and just prosperity. It gives children not just a roof but a place where their family, orthodox or otherwise, shelter them, love them, and bring them up in stability. This isn’t sentimentality, it isn’t even merely liberal sentiment, there are also excellent pragmatic reasons for wishing these things. It is in all our interests to have people with a stake in our community and country, and thus much more likely to help us succeed as a country and much less likely to cause mayhem for us, and children, the future of us all, happy and secure.

Impact of the proposals
How do the three Tory Libdem proposals impact upon these desiderata?

The move to limited tenancies will introduce uncertainty into lives many of which are uncertain already, with periodic unemployment and shifting benefits and income. The threat of losing your house if you get on financially is likely for some to be a deterrent to ambition and financial improvement and even finding a job. I think these two proposals, and the moving of people they will involve, do not help community cohesion; breaking local ties with family and friends and perhaps school is damaging. The increase in rents adds in more uncertainty without saving much as many tenants will claim housing benefit for new higher rents they cannot pay.

These proposals are foolish and damaging as they stand.

Fiddling waiting lists and more woes
As for the claim that 150 000 affordable houses will be built in the next four years, I doubt that very mean ambition will be realised. However, the waiting lists will reduce. The Tory-Libdems have hit on a wheeze. Local authorities faced with large and increasing waiting lists will have the power to change the qualifications required to get on the list. Another deckchair moved.

Two other Tory Libdem changes add to these woes.

Housing organisations have signalled their serious concern about cuts to the house building funds and programs. See here and here. These cuts will reduce planned affordable houses in Cornwall.

The housing proposals will empower local communities. What it means in practice is giving a veto to every nimby. I asked in this post back in early 2008 whether, if left to a decision by the neighbourhood as the Tory-Libdems now propose, any affordable housing would be built anywhere in England. Until the Tory Libdem changes, central government was able to act for the whole country and able to limit the power of local self-interest. I am dispirited about likely local objections to affordable housing in many places in Cornwall.

I believe these last two changes will drastically reduce the number of affordable houses built in Cornwall.

Taken together the Tory Libdem plans for affordable housing gives us an outlook for Cornwall and the rest of the country that is bleak, grim,and dire.

Previous posts on affordable housing in Cornwall

Affordable housing and Cornwall Part 4 16 August 2010
Affordable housing and Cornwall Part 3 18 March 2010
Affordable housing and Cornwall Part 2 8 March 2010
Affordable housing and Cornwall Part 1 24 February 2010
Housing 21 June 2009
Housing the people in Cornwall 29 September 2009
Goldilocks and Cornwall 11 March 2008