Posted by: Jules Birch09/08/2010
Liberal Democrat opposition to David Cameron’s idea of fixed-term social tenancies goes far beyond the rebuke issued last week by deputy leader Simon Hughes.
The evidence comes from early day motions (EDMs) that Cameron’s coalition partners have signed over the last three years.
In the last parliament, EDMs opposing moves to end secure tenancies were signed by 41 out of 63 Lib Dem MPs.
Ten of them stood down at the election, but the rest still represent a majority of the current 57-strong parliamentary party and include two Cabinet ministers and seven junior ministers.
In November 2007, after Caroline Flint had flirted with the idea of making new tenancies conditional on looking for work, Labour’s Austin Mitchell sponsored an EDM that this House ‘actively opposes both the stigmatisation of council housing as housing of last resort and proposals to means test or time limit secure tenancies’.
This was ‘so that local authorities can respect the choice of existing tenants who want to keep the council as their landlord and get their homes and estates improved, house the wide range of people on council housing waiting lists and so return council estates to the mixed communities they were before shortage distorted allocations policies and concentrated deprivation’.
The 123 signatories included 37 Lib Dems, 27 of whom are still MPs. Signatories included two MPs who are now coalition Cabinet ministers (energy secretary Chris Huhne and Scottish secretary Michael Moore) plus another six who are now junior ministers: Norman Baker (transport), Jeremy Browne (Foreign Office), Paul Burstow (health), Ed Davey (business), Lynne Featherstone (equalities) and Steve Webb (pensions).
The other 19 opponents of time-limited tenancies who are still MPs were Hughes, Bob Russell, Mike Hancock, John Hemming, Don Foster, Adrian Sanders, Andrew George, Alan Reid, Stephen Williams, John Leech, Mark Hunter, Roger Williams, Lorely Burt, Jo Swinson, Dan Rogerson, Charles Kennedy, Mark Williams, Jenny Willott and Tim Farron.
A second Mitchell-sponsored EDM in December 2008 pointed out ‘the urgent need to boost the economy by a massive programme of public investment to improve existing council homes and estates and build a new generation of first-class council housing to provide secure tenancies and low rents’.
It also called on the government ‘to provide funding to build new council homes thus allowing authorities to open up their allocation policies once again to the wide range of people on council housing waiting lists so that butchers, bakers, nurses and teachers can live together with young families and pensioners thus returning our estates to the mixed and sustainable communities they used to be, and to provide a sustainable housing policy offering security and stability for the 21st century’.
Many of the same MPs signed and they were joined by Andrew Stunnell, now a junior minister at Communities and Local Government, Martin Horwood and John Pugh.
Since the election and the coalition, Mitchell has sponsored another EDM that argued that ‘the only way to allow for greater mobility of council and social housing tenants to enable them to move to where the jobs are is not to reduce the security of tenure to which tenants have a right, but to increase the stock of public housing so that it can not only cope with the increased demand but also allow for more mobility of tenants’.
Lib Dem signatories were understandably thinner on the ground but Russell, Hancock, Hemming and new MP Mike Crockart still offered their support.
Supporters of those three EDMs total 31 out of the 57-strong parliamentary party. Education minister Sarah Teather, who held the housing brief before the election, takes the total to 32 as a well-known defender of secure tenancies.
She told Inside Housing in July 2009 that she would resist any form of conditionality creeping into social housing allocations. ‘How on earth can you persuade people to go back into work, if you tell them that as soon as they get work, they’re in danger of losing their flat?’ she asked.
‘We do need to give people incentives to move out, but that’s completely different from losing security of tenure.’In interviews over the weekend, housing minister Grant Shapps continued to defend Cameron’s idea.
‘Affordable housing is very expensive to build, and takes billions of public subsidy,’ he said. ‘We provide tenures which last a lifetime and sometimes beyond. That is not an efficient situation for the future - and is unfair for people on waiting lists, who are often the most vulnerable in our society.’
An opinion poll for the Sunday Times suggested that 62% of voters support Cameron and 32% oppose him - Lib Dem voters by 67:26 and Labour voters by 48:47. However, Lib Dem backbenchers have been making no secret of their opposition in local media interviews. Two MPs in the party’s Westcountry heartland have already condemned the plan. Andrew George (St Ives) said it would create an even more divided society while Adrian Sanders (Torbay) said: ‘The coalition agreement is based on two fundamental principles: one – fairness, and two – looking after the interests of vulnerable people. So far given what we know about this idea, it fails both those tests.’
And there is also some opposition on the Conservative backbenches. Nadine Dorries, who was brought up on a Liverpool council estate, said she welcomed the debate but that fixed-term tenancies would simply discourage people from looking for work.
‘If we are going to support families, then the bedrock of families is the family home and I do not think that saying to people “in five years’ time you might lose your home” is a good way for people to try to improve their lot,’ she told the Today programme on Saturday. ‘Rather than saying to people “if your lot has improved you will be moved on” we should be giving the option to buy. That incentivises people to improve their lot.’
From Inside edge
Housing commentator Jules Birch puts the latest news in context