Posted by: Jules Birch06/06/2011
So is the government breaking its promises to existing social tenants or not? You decide.
The Daily Telegraph reported on Saturday morning that council houses would be taken away from an estimated 6,000 tenants with a household income of more than £100,000. ‘A new law would mean that local authorities could order tenants to leave their home, and ultimately if they refuse, be evicted.
Grant Shapps told the paper: ‘With so many people in housing need languishing on the waiting lists which doubled under Labour, it’s right to consider whether people on £100,000-plus salaries should get their rent subsidised by the taxpayer. Social housing is an expensive and scarce resource which should be targeted on supporting those in real need.’
That immediately prompted accusations that the coalition was reneging on its promises to existing tenants. And there was even criticism from Westminister Council’s Philippa Roe, who has been campaigning instead for powers to increase the rents of existing tenants.
However, Shapps was soon clarifying what he meant and arguing that he was not breaking any previous promises. He told (ex-Inside Housing reporter) Isabel Hardman on PoliticsHome that the reform was focused on increasing the rents of tenants earning more than £100,000 and that they would only have to leave if they refused to pay the higher rate.
‘This is a change to rents,’ he said. ‘If they do not want to pay the going rate for a property, that is the same for any tenant.’
He had a similar and more detailed exchange towards the end of Murnaghan on Sky yesterday.
For the record, here’s what the politicians have said about social tenants’ rights over the last year or so:
Conservative manifesto pledges to ‘respect the tenures and rents of social housing tenants’.
During the campaign Grant Shapps accuses Labour of ‘spreading unfounded and baseless statements about David Cameron, myself and Conservative policies on social tenure and rents’ and says the Tories have no plans to change security of tenure for existing or future tenants or raise their rents towards market levels.
David Cameron first floats the idea of fixed-term tenancies for new tenants. Grant Shapps tells BBC News that the government remains ‘committed to protecting the security of tenure and rights of those currently in social housing’
Labour MP Clive Efford questions Shapps at the Communities and Local Government committee :
Efford: Before the election your party said, “We have no policy to change the current or future security of tenure of tenants in social housing.” Given that you were in the job for so long what changed your mind when you got into Government?
Shapps: We still have no plans to change the existing or future tenancies for people in social housing today.
Efford: That is not what was said, nor was it the question.
Shapps: It is what it says; read it again.
Efford: The question was whether you had any future plans to change the security of tenure for tenants, and this says you have no current or future plans for security of tenure of tenants.
Grant Shapps: For existing tenants.
Andrew Stunell explains the coalition’s housing plans on Lib Dem Voice: ‘The policies we are introducing will NOT result in people being thrown out of their council houses,’ he says. ‘Nor will they end lifetime tenure (incidentally introduced by Mrs T, not Karl Marx). What we ARE doing is introducing a new tenure, to sit alongside the other forms of tenure that are already in place. This new tenure will be an option for social landlords to use for new tenancies only and will not affect existing ones in any way.’
Shapps launches consultation on ‘a fairer future for social housing’ and pledges that ‘the changes will not affect any existing tenants’.
Stunell is back on Lib Dem Voice: ‘These proposals protect lifetime tenure for all existing tenants, and it will still be an option for new tenants as well.’
Labour’s Alison Seabeck asks junior communities minister Greg Clark at CLG questions: ‘The Government have repeatedly said that they will not allow social landlords to change the rights of existing tenants, yet question 13 of that consultation leaves the door wide open for them to do exactly that in the future. Can this Minister give the House a personal guarantee that the Government will not now or in the future permit changes to the rights of existing social tenants?
Clark simply replies: Yes.’
Shapps pledges at CLG questions that: ‘There is no chance of, or way in which, a social tenancy can be broken or changed for anybody already in council or housing association homes.’
Stunell says in Localism Bill committee debate: ‘In everything that we have introduced, we have been clear that existing social tenants are protected while they continue to have social tenancies, either in their current tenancy or if they transfer or move to another tenancy.’
Sunday Times story on union leader Bob Crow living in a council house signals that the high earner issue is still on the political agenda. Shapps tells the paper: ‘With nearly 5m vulnerable people languishing on housing waiting lists, I would have thought a highly paid union baron would feel somewhat awkward taking advantage of publicly subsidised housing.’
In the final Localism debate in the Commons, Labour puts forward an amendment seeking an explicit guarantee of security of tenure for existing tenants who move to another home. Stunell refuses to cooperate and says: ‘I want to put clearly on the record again that our proposal does not affect any existing tenant, even if they swap or transfer their home, and even if the person they swap with has a flexible tenancy.’
So, back in June 2011, are ministers breaking their promises or not? For my money, the Conservative claim that they only meant to ‘respect’ the rights of existing tenants, not new ones, was already stretching things to breaking point. Unless of course they meant to use the word in the same sense that someone arguing with you says ‘with all due respect’ and actually means the opposite.
The clarification by Shapps provides some extra wriggle room but I can’t help but remember that original Conservative manifesto pledge to ‘respect the tenures and rents [my emphasis] of social housing tenants’? And in any case how could a market rent be imposed without breaking the tenancy?
So leaving aside for a moment the rights and wrongs and practicalities of eroding security of tenure (more on that shortly), it seems that the tenure and rents of all social tenants are guaranteed. Except for new tenants and now except for high-earning tenants.
All that wriggling can only add weight to Labour claims that the Localism Bill does not guarantee the rights of existing tenants who move either. It can only add to the concerns of tenants in places like Hammersmith & Fulham whose homes are to be redeveloped.
And, just in case tenants weren’t already feeling insecure, there’s a letter in the Telegraph this morning welcoming the new policy but asking ‘Why take council houses away from people earning £100,000? Around £30,000 might be a more realistic figure.’
From Inside edge
Housing commentator Jules Birch puts the latest news in context