Council homes can be tenure of choice
The Chartered Institute of Housing’s open letter to tenants (Inside Housing, 31 October) is timed perfectly to allow tenants and other supporters of council housing to respond at the Defend Council Housing conference on 25 November.
We will also be in time to submit proposals to the review of council housing finance and the consultation on last week’s draft subsidy determination.
The CIH letter and the original Rethinking housing paper are shocking but not exactly original. The key argument and much of the language has been lifted from the Smith Institute’s Rethinking social housing paper published in 2006. This crudely argued that a ‘secure tenancy’ for life encourages ‘dependency’ and should be scrapped. The theme was eagerly taken up by then secretary of state Ruth Kelly, who asked Professor John Hills to look at the role of social housing. She and others clearly hoped that Professor Hills would oblige and recommend means testing and time-limited tenancies. To his credit he refused.
The former housing minister Yvette Cooper, when we met her, made it clear she didn’t support this agenda, but her successor Caroline Flint chose to make her first speech as housing minister on ‘commitment contracts’.
The CIH’s latest contribution is clearly an attempt to rehabilitate this agenda, despite several ministers retiring bruised. Its agenda is based on the assumptions that those in council housing have obligations in addition to those in other forms of tenure, and that it is the job of housing professionals to paternalistically help tenants through life.
But the government is robbing council tenants, not subsidising us, to the tune of £1.8 billion a year – as the latest draft subsidy determination confirms.
And why should employment help be tenure-specific? When millions face insecurity and instability the last thing they need is a threat to their ‘secure’ tenancy.
The principle that needs defending is that council housing should be a mainstream tenure of choice, available to all who want to rent as an alternative to the private market. Council tenants need and have the same right to a ‘home’ as everyone else. It’s ironic that those arguing for means testing and time limits also bang out the rhetoric about building ‘sustainable communities’. Their proposals directly stigmatise council housing as housing of last resort.
The solution is to start a massive investment programme to improve existing homes and build a new generation of first-class council homes. That would provide the much-needed homes the market is incapable of providing and also open up housing allocation policies once again so that our estates return to being the mixed and sustainable communities they were before scarcity distorted them.
Many CIH members are unhappy with their professional association ‘doing a job’ for ministers. They might not all agree with DCH’s response, but hopefully they will make sure that council tenants know about the DCH conference on 25 November and receive the practical and financial help given to empower tenants to attend other events.
Alan Walter, chair of Defend Council Housing