It’s one of the first rules of government: if you are cutting or abolishing something, you need a reform package to cover the crime.
The coalition has cut the affordable housing budget by 75 per cent and has put together a radical package of housing reforms. Unfortunately, if you need housing in the coming years you are likely to find a system that is ever more brutal; from housing benefit cuts in the private sector and the ongoing shortage of truly affordable housing. This does not paint a pretty picture, but I believe Labour-led councils should not fear these reforms and here’s why.
Despite a shaky start on devolution, the government has allowed councils and housing associations some genuine housing freedoms. The coalition has a clear vision for the system these freedoms are designed to create: more people housed in the private sector, a quasi-market system in public housing (with housing associations preferred to councils) and state support used as a temporary ‘backstop’ only in times of crisis.
That may be their intention but, holding the government to their word on local flexibility, Labour councils need not use these freedoms that way. The challenge for Labour authorities is to use some of these freedoms to demonstrate an alternative agenda.
The government’s plans are a recipe for concentrating poverty and deprivation in social housing, especially council housing. Proposals assume that councils should use shorter tenancies to move people on when their circumstances improve and they no longer ‘need’ social housing. Labour councils should demonstrate how affordable housing can support working people. And that affordable housing should be part of mixed communities, in which people put down roots. That means maintaining, not ending, the tenancies of those who are in work or contributing to the community. Allocation schemes should allow working people on low incomes to get affordable housing and even prioritise working people in some areas, where deprivation has become the norm. If used effectively this could help us support people better - particularly those who aspire to improve their lives.
Labour town halls will have greater capacity to do this if they take up the freedom to discharge their homelessness duty into private rented accommodation, with appropriate safeguards. There’s now a tough job to be done to ensure needs are met in that sector. Nevertheless, it does provide the space in social housing stock to offer council housing to a wider group of low-income people.
Government reforms pit housing policy against aspiration and stable, sustainable communities. We should use what freedoms we have to demonstrate the principle that public housing should support people in a range of circumstances.
Sir Robin Wales is Labour mayor of Newham