Posted by: Jules Birch23/05/2011
With all eyes on how Lib Dems would vote in last week’s Localism Bill debates, it would be easy to miss a small but significant Conservative rebellion on security of tenure.
Two Labour amendments on the issue were defeated on Wednesday before the main clauses on social housing reform got a third reading with a comfortable majority for the government. All eyes will now be in the House of Lords, where the second reading debate begins in two weeks time.
However, in the debate itself and in the votes that followed there was clear unease on the coalition side and a noteable unwillingness to accept assurances from government ministers about things that are not explicit in the Bill.
The debate centred on two Labour amendments. The first sought to delete a section of the Bill on flexible tenancies and the second to create an explicit guarantee of security of tenure for existing tenants who move. Both were voted down, but not before four Lib Dems and two Tories had voted with Labour for that guarantee.
This was despite junior housing minister Andrew Stunell attempting to allay the fears of MPs right at the start of the debate by arguing that tenure standards would ensure against an unregulated market.
First, he said that two-year tenancies (the minimum in the Bill) will be the exception rather than the rule. ‘Let me repeat what I said in Committee. In the vast majority of cases in which a social landlord offers a flexible tenancy, we will expect that tenancy to be for at least five years. It will often be appropriate to provide longer—in some instances, lifetime—tenancies.’
Second, he said security was guaranteed for existing tenants. ‘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.’
Both were called into question by Labour MPs. ‘The Minister is doing a very good Pontius Pilate impersonation,’ said Andy Slaughter. ‘He is saying, “I’ll wash my hands of it and we will leave it to others.” But he is leaving it to authorities such as Hammersmith and Fulham council or Notting Hill Housing, the second biggest social landlord, which have both said that they will opt for the minimum possible terms for all tenants, including the elderly and the disabled.’
And shadow housing minister Alison Seabeck said: ‘The system allows for discretion, but the evidence suggests that it will not be used, and that Hammersmith and Fulham, Westminster and other councils will simply say, “Sorry, no!” If someone chooses to move—the key point is the choice—they will probably find themselves with a higher rent and a shorter tenure.’
But the unease went beyond just Labour MPs and beyond just west London landlords.
First up, the Lib Dems. Annette Brooke said: ‘I want to put on record my concern about the two-year tenancies. True, it is said that they will be exceptions but there is a big “but” once we start using the term “exceptions”. The Liberal Democrats want this issue to be revisited in the House of Lords. It is incredibly important to get it right.’
She was backed by Lib Dem deputy leader Simon Hughes, who said: ‘We must build communities, and that is done by having more, not less, security. That does not mean that there should be no flexibility or that councils and other providers should have no ability to have tenancies that are not secure, but security of tenure should be the presumption. I hope that as the Bill goes from this place to the other place, the concerns from across the House will continue to be considered.’
Dan Rogerson argued that: ‘Although [the] intention is to provide good local authorities with the flexibility to use the measure when that might help, my worry is that the measure is not robust enough to stop others misusing it and making it the norm.’
And it also went beyond Labour MPs and a few Lib Dems. One of the most impressive and surprising contributions for me came from Andrew Percy, the Conservative MP for Brigg and Goole.
He said he had no problem with the idea of councils offering flexible tenancies ‘but I should like to see more commitment in regard to the proportion that they should offer, and also an absolute guarantee that they will continue to offer secure tenancies’.
And he added: ‘I do not want some official from the local authority to turn up all of a sudden and tell people whose children happen to have left home that under the terms of their flexible tenancies their time is up, and they must move on and make a home somewhere else.’
Percy was backed by Martin Vickers, another Tory backbencher who had also expressed concern at second reading. ‘I put this simple question to the Front-Bench team,’ said the Cleethorpes MP, ‘how will the Bill and the tenancy provisions build stronger, more settled communities? I am afraid that I remain unconvinced.’
What was really striking was that both of them were speaking from personal experience. Vickers was brought up in a council house and as a councillor Percy represented the estate where his father grew up and where his grandma still lived. ‘They are not just bricks and mortar, they are homes, not houses,’ as Vickers put it. ‘We had a sustainable community in which people had invested and in which they wanted to remain,’ said Percy.
Percy argued: ‘I keep using the word “home” because these properties are not merely a facility that belongs to the council—although I suppose legally they are that. They are much more than that, however, so where is the security for the young person who moves out and then wishes to return home? I have absolutely no doubt that these proposals have been made with the best of intentions. On the estate I represented we had huge problems with such patterns of occupation and young people not having a chance to get a home, but we do not want to use a sledgehammer to crack a walnut.’
It was that sense of ‘home’ and ‘community’ and worry that, as Vickers put it, ‘flexbility for the landlord means more inflexiblity for the tenant’ that presumably led both of them to vote for the Labour amendment strengthening guarantees for existing tenants.
Neither that, nor votes for the same amendment by Andrew George, Stephen Gilbert and Dan Rogerson from the Lib Dems, made a difference to the final outcome.
But beyond party politics what Percy and Vickers were saying had a ring of authenticity that came from their personal experience. They were speaking for the vast majority of people who have lived in council housing and known they were not just being given a tenancy but a home and a place in their community too. No matter the justifications and assurances, that is what the flexible tenure plan fundamentally threatens.
When the Localism Bill moves upstairs in two weeks hopefully some of their lordships will take note.
From Inside edge
Housing commentator Jules Birch puts the latest news in context