‘On one council estate I even saw a Jag parked outside a council house,’ the overfed, pink-faced estate agent told the crowded room, nodding his head in amateur dramatic disbelief at the very idea and waiting for the applause. The response from councillor Kevin Gould was swift: ‘I won’t be satisfied until there is a Jag parked outside every council house in my ward.’
The exchange took place about 30 years ago at a housing conference in London attended, unusually in those pre-partnership days, by people from both the private and the public sectors. After all these years, I still tend to share the view of Mr Gould, then the chair of housing in Leeds.
Michael Portillo, judging by his interview in Inside Housing, is firmly on the estate agent’s side. The former Thatcherite cabinet minister believes that council tenants who make a few quid should get in their Jags and drive off into the private sector sunset. ‘It should be clear that social housing, which is in short supply, is made available to meet social need, and where the need ceases to exist, the provision is no longer appropriate,’ he argues.
It’s a tricky case for Mr Portillo to make. It was the governments in which he served so enthusiastically that dramatically reduced the supply of social housing by selling off council homes at knockdown prices. The same governments cut council building from 85,000 in 1979 to a trickle of only 15,000 by 1990. They also took their axe to the housing association build programme, which fell from 18,000 in 1979 to 11,000 in 1988.
Indeed, Ian Gilmour, one of Mr Portillo’s cabinet colleagues and a wringing wet critic of Margaret Thatcher, pointed out in his book Dancing With Dogma that ‘in housing, almost uniquely, the (Thatcher) government achieved its target of drastically cutting public expenditure’.
Given his previous, it’s a trifle rich for Mr Portillo to suggest we dispense with security of tenure because of the shortage of affordable homes. Even if we did accept his argument and end security of tenure, where would these tenants move to? If they can’t afford to buy the council home they live in, they are unlikely to be able to buy a house or flat in the private sector.
That leaves the private rented sector. Expensive - the rents for former council houses in my ward are almost four times those of houses still in council ownership - and often poorly managed and maintained, a great deal of the private sector doesn’t offer a very attractive or affordable alternative to council tenants.
And haven’t we learned the lesson of cramming only deeply impoverished people into rented housing on council and housing association estates? Social landlords are now charged with the task of producing more balanced communities. Moving people on would add to the social churn and unsettle communities.
Anyway, why should social housing tenants have to move if they don’t want to? Many of them like where they live and feel part of the community around them. Ask any housing officer who has tried to persuade older tenants living in three-bedroom houses to make way for a family by moving to smaller accommodation outside their neighbourhood.
Most of the 27,000 tenants who contributed to the Tenant Services Authority’s national conversation appeared to like where they live, and 77 per cent said they were satisfied with their landlords.
Described by TSA chief executive Peter Marsh as ‘a set of free consultants’, they gave their views in 18 regional meetings that avoided ‘the familiar housing circuit and the usual suspects.’ The face-to-face conversations were supplemented with questionnaires and website contact.
There is, of course, always room for improvement, and the tenants flagged up the key areas for attention that everybody would expect: better repairs and maintenance services and safer neighbourhoods among them. They also want to know what their landlords are up to and to be more involved in making decisions that affect their homes, their lives and their families.
Some tenants who took part in local conversations run by housing associations to support the national initiative said they would be prepared to pay a bit more rent in return for environmental and estate improvements. They also indicated that they would want to be involved in deciding how any extra money that was made available would be spent.
It’s a sensible idea, and one that has been suggested as a way of funding home insulation work, for example. Tenants would pay a bit extra to fund insulation and other green improvements, and in return they would save more than they have paid in reduced energy bills and enjoy warmer homes and better health.
The TSA work confirmed that the most successful landlords are those who are involved with and listen to their customers. This is much more difficult to achieve where there is a constant tenant turnover. Tenants who do not feel secure about their future are far less likely to invest their time and effort in the estates where they live.
The case for a bigger affordable housing programme is overwhelming, for both social and economic reasons. However, unless this government or the next one has a radical change of plan up its sleeve, the likelihood is that it won’t happen. It is important, therefore, that we make the most of what we’ve got.
The answer is not ending security of tenure. Mr Marsh, who has raised this issue off the back of the national conversation with tenants, should proceed with care.
Bill Randall is a housing writer and Green Party councillor