6 June 2011

Tenancy changes
Last month the Tory Libdem government passed through the Commons changes in council and housing association tenancies. Two particularly destructive changes, which will impact adversely upon tenants in Cornwall as well as elsewhere, were challenged heavily by Labour – and Cornwall Libdem MPs. Yes, you read that right.

The Tory Libdem government is introducing flexible tenure. Future tenants may find themselves being given only a time-limited tenancy, which could be as short as two years, by a council or housing association. The idea is enable councils to make many future tenancies not for-life ones but ‘flexible’ tenancies of defined length; and thus to enable the council/association to end a flexible tenancy and acquire a house for letting to someone else on their waiting list; and also to empower a council/association to assess any changes in the income and occupation and family circumstances of the tenant to see if they point to a move into private rented or mortgage housing or a smaller house. I think the prime motivation is that the Tory Libdems expect to continue Labour’s dismal failure to build anything like enough houses for people on waiting lists; shifting tenants out makes houses available. Andrew Stunnell, the Libdem minister, said that flexible tenancies are a “step towards dealing with” the “ever-growing waiting lists” (Hansard 18 May 2011 column 460).

Drawbacks to the changes
There are very obvious drawbacks to the Tory Libdem measures. There is a loss of the security that a for-life council or housing association tenancy gives and the loss of incentive to maintain a for-life house well. What happens if a tenant’s circumstances change again after he and his family have been forced to rent privately or start to buy or move to a smaller house? Another destabilising move? Andrew Percy, the Conservative MP for Brigg and Goole, pointed out a reality of modern families which the government’s policy disregards: “family members frequently move out and back in again” (column 424).

If getting a better job and income will result in the involuntary loss of your council/association house, that is likely to be a powerful disincentive for people to advance.

A house is not just a shelter. It is a home and one in a community too. People settle, put down roots, children go to school and, like their parents, build friendships and a support group. Stephen Gilbert, Libdem MP for St Austell and Newquay well said, “The government cannot create a big society and increase community cohesion if we continue to move people around” (column 424). Martin Vickers, the Conservative MP for Cleethorpes, asked, “How will shorter tenancies help to achieve stable communities?” (column 440). Andrew Percy explained in vain how settled people came to look after a house and invest in their community. He gave the solution: “We should build more council houses” (column 425).

The government of course say a two year flexible tenancy is the minimum and should not be the typical length. Dan Rogerson, Libdem MP for North Cornwall, raised the telling doubt that two years would be not only the minimum but also the norm (column 438).

Cornwall Libdem votes
At the end of the report-stage debate there were two votes. One on Labour amendment 13 was to remove the enablement of flexible tenancies from the bill. Andrew George and Dan Rogerson voted for that amendment but they were the only Libdems doing so. No vote is recorded for Stephen Gilbert. On Labour amendment 271 which guaranteed all existing secure tenants continuing security if they moved to another council/association house, all of the Cornwall Libdem MPs, George, Rogerson, Gilbert, voted for the amendment but they were the only Libdems doing so. Both amendments were defeated by the combined Tory Libdem votes.

Andrew George and Dan Rogerson got it right on May 18th though they are in a party that got it badly wrong; the damaging tenancy measures were presented by the Libdem minister and voted for by the bulk of Libdem MPs who resisted the civilising amendments. If the bulk of Libdem MPs continue to vote for reactionary policies, a genuine dissent by a Cornwall MP or even all three of them won’t even ripple the waters. The Liberal Democrat party sustains and is part of a socially and economically incompetent and reactionary government. Occasional progressive votes from Cornwall, alas, don’t change anything. Nevertheless, two cheers for George and Rogerson, not quite two for Gilbert. The lads did well.