Posted by: Jules Birch29/07/2011
The change of tack on five-year tenancies is a welcome development but one that also confirms yet again the extent to which the government is making things up as it goes along with its social housing reforms.
In the last month ministers have managed to first signal that two-year tenancies would only be used in exceptional circumstances, then publish draft directions that failed to mention this, then amend that to say that the norm will be at least five years. The directions were already three weeks into a 12-week consultation when this change was made.
While I was away on holiday, the Localism BIll was moving slowly through its committee stage in the House of Lords. Based on what happened with, for example, the housing benefit cuts, that seemed like a great opportunity for peers of vast experience to move amendments on issues such as the suitability of private rented accommodation for homeless families, gatekeeping by local authorities, the security of tenure of existing social tenants who move and extra protection for elderly and vulnerable households.
In the event, after four weeks of committee stage deliberations, the debate on the housing sections of the Bill was crammed into just two and a half hours on the final day before the Summer recess.
Remarkably, even government minister Baroness Hanham seemed annoyed by the lack of time for debate. ‘My Lords, this is clearly a debate that needs a lot more time than we have got tonight,’ she said. ‘I have listened to some very moving and knowledgeable speeches on the amendments and I understand fully the points that people have been making. The trouble is the time constraints—the way these have been grouped in this large bunch makes it almost impossible for me to deal with all the many points that have been raised in the manner in which I would have wished to do so.’
That bunching meant that amendments on issues such as gatekeeping did not even make it beyond the order paper. And even those that were debated were withdrawn without being put to a debate.
The issue of the suitability of private rented accommodation where local authorities have discharged their homelessness duty had been covered in a worryingly thin DCLG document deposited in the House of Lords library (see July 11).
And a whole range of issues including the security of tenure of existing social tenants will they move will be left at the door of a social housing regulator with fewer resources than before but an increased role in telling landlords what to do.
The Bill is now formally at the report stage in the Lords so there will be one more opportunity once parliament reconvenes but it’s hard not to think that the best chance for the Lords to use its collective expertise to improve the legislation for landlords, tenants and homeless families alike has already gone.
However, none of this rush and muddle should should come as much of a surprise to anyone whose followed the reforms from their assumption.
Proclaimed as the most radical for a generation when proposals were published last December, the consultation on them was squeezed into just eight weeks including Christmas to fit in with the timetable for the Localism Bill. This was in breach of the government’s own code of practice that says the minimum should be 12 weeks and meant that the consultation ended on the same day as MPs gave the Bill its second reading in the Commons.
As I said at the time, if governments or anyone else acts in haste they tend to repent at leisure. What’s happened while I’ve been away makes that point yet again. That does not bode well for the workability let alone the fairness of the reforms in the long term.
From Inside edge
Housing commentator Jules Birch puts the latest news in context