Making the sub-letting of social homes a criminal offence unfairly singles out the sector, says Andrew Heywood
The great divide
‘I want everyone to know that our country’s social homes are going to those in genuine need, not providing a ‘nice little earner’ to someone who could afford to live elsewhere.’
It was in these trenchant terms that housing minister Grant Shapps announced that the government would consult on making sub-letting of social homes a criminal offence, with penalties of up to two years in prison and/or a £50,000 fine.
Few people would deny that social rented housing is a scarce resource. Nevertheless, the rhetoric of Mr Shapps has a certain populist ‘tough on crime’ ring to it, prompting the question whether this is really considered policymaking or the kind of gesture politics exemplified by Tony Blair’s ill-fated promise to march young thugs down to the nearest cashpoint for instant justice.
Estimates of the number of social rented homes currently sub-let vary widely from the 2010 Audit Commission figure of 50,000 to numbers as high as 160,000. Clearly, if these homes are being let outside any needs-based allocation system that is a problem that councils and housing associations should take very seriously. Nevertheless, is a designated criminal offence really appropriate?
We should, after all, not forget that landlords are not actually losing revenue here. The issue is one of control over the property to ensure a rational system of allocation. Private tenants are normally prohibited from sub-letting but the average private landlord would probably hesitate to use the word ‘fraudster’ in respect of a tenant who sub-let their home unless the rent was not being paid.
The obvious rejoinder to the above is that homeowners and private tenants are not enjoying the benefit of a scarce public resource; it is a fair reply. Yet without condoning cynical sub-letting for profit, it is quite possible to envisage better reasons why some tenants might wish to maintain their right to their property while temporarily residing elsewhere and sub-letting. Such reasons might include a short-term job contract beyond commuting distance of their original home or chronic family problems requiring a protracted but not permanent residence elsewhere.
While breaking the terms of a tenancy to which one is a party cannot be justified by such situations, sub-letting as a response is at least understandable and scarcely criminal. Finally, driving a wedge between private tenants and social tenants in terms of the legal response of the landlord does, arguably, contribute further to the residualisation of the social rented sector.
Proper use of public resources is a legitimate goal. But policymaking with one eye on the opinion polls risks prejudicing that same goal. When these proposals do finally crystallise, we shall have to decide if we are pursuing a common sense means to an end or embarking on the long march to Mr Blair’s mythical cashpoint.
Andrew Heywood is a consultant and former deputy head of policy at the Council of Mortgage Lenders