Controversial new allocations policies which prioritise applicants in work are gaining momentum among councils. Emily Rogers kicks off our residents special issue with a look at why working tenants are being allowed to jump up the housing waiting list.
Two families of five live in neighbouring two-bedroom flats on a deprived estate. Both are waiting for three-bedroom homes. There is little to distinguish between their situations, except that the breadwinner of one of the families managed to find work several months ago. So this family has jumped up a priority band in the housing waiting list and will be housed first.
If this doesn’t sound like a plausible scenario, it soon might. In Manchester it has been possible since February, when the rules determining who is prioritised for social homes underwent a controversial overhaul.
Gone is the complex points-based system which ranked the city’s 14,000 applicants solely according to their level of housing need. Now they are assessed not just based on their need, but also on how deserving they are perceived to be.
Labour-led Manchester was the first to push ahead with its new system, but several other local authorities - including Barnet, Southend, Newham, Wandsworth and Brighton & Hove councils - have also either altered their allocations policies to favour those who are deemed to be contributing to society, or are planning to do so. A wave of new policies are expected to be introduced early next year, following last month’s enactment of the Localism Bill, which gives them more freedom to decide who gets a home.
The idea that social homes for people, other than those in urgent need - such as those who are homeless, fleeing abuse or have severe health problems - should come with conditions like employment attached, used to be a political hot potato. Now the rhetoric from Whitehall has changed and councils of all colours from across England are jumping to change their allocations policies.
So how does this policy work? Does it risk trampling on the housing hopes of tenants in the most need as people with jobs leapfrog their way to the front of waiting lists? And is the introduction of such a policy fair at a time when unemployment has risen to a 17-year high of 2.62 million?
Despite political rhetoric that says members of the public are fed up of the ‘something for nothing’ culture, the residents Inside Housing spoke to in local authorities areas where allocations systems are changing remain largely unconvinced that favouring those in work is a positive step.
In Manchester, Paul Beardmore, the 15,000-home local authority’s housing director, refutes the suggestion that the council could be unfairly penalising people in housing need who are struggling to find work.
‘It’s not about relegating housing need and that’s important to stress still,’ he says. ‘The people in the highest need will still get [top] priority for rehousing.’
He stresses that on top of this anyone can gain under the new system because it also recognises the ‘contribution’ that would-be tenants make in their communities - attaching the same importance to this as employment.
Less than 10 months on from its introduction, the new policy is transforming the demographic make-up of those being allocated social homes in the city. Nearly a fifth of Manchester’s social lets, which average around 4,000 per year, now go to households in work or contributing to the community and around a third of these households are not in legally-defined housing need. Under the previous system practically all lettings were entirely determined by need.
Manchester’s new policy already appears to be making social housing more attractive to the city’s workers. The number of applicants for social homes who are either employed or volunteering increased by 19 per cent between April and July this year.
Mr Beardmore believes this is encouraging. ‘I think that shows we’ve now got the message out there that council housing is for people who work,’ he says. ‘We’ve gone too far the other way in the past, sending out a message that social housing is not for working people and that has exacerbated some of the problems we’ve got in terms of the concentration of worklessness.’
Other local authorities at the forefront of this big social experiment include Green Party-led Brighton & Hove, which since May this year has allocated half its 330 lets to households in work, or making a ‘positive contribution’ by volunteering or caring for others. The council has imposed income caps on those getting the homes, to ensure low-paid workers benefit.
Barnet Council in north London has introduced similar changes. Since it started prioritising people who make a positive contribution in April, nearly a quarter of those who have been allocated social housing are in its band two, which includes everyone in employment, volunteers, ex-service people, foster carers and those on certain training schemes. Of the 190 households in this category that have been given homes, 121 have gone to applicants who are in work.
Meanwhile, Southend Council in Essex has drawn up plans to set aside a fifth of the 500 or so homes it lets each year specifically for people in work or volunteering. The policy, which the council aims to introduce next spring, will see a smattering of the homes advertised in its choice-based lettings scheme branded as ‘work plus’ homes, giving first refusal to those in work or contributing their time and effort to benefit society in some way.
Jacqui Lansley, Southend Council’s head of community strategy and development, says the drive behind the change is to shape ‘healthy mixed communities’ on estates where half of residents are currently on full housing benefit. ‘This gives us an opportunity to increase the working population in the areas where we currently get low levels of economic activity.’
Ms Lansley says the flexible tenancies being introduced under the Localism Act and which review tenants’ personal circumstances after a set amount of time, may be an option for the council’s homes in the future.
This is exactly what the south London borough of Wandsworth is planning to trial from June next year. The 17,000-home council’s cabinet member for housing Paul Ellis envisages around 12 homes initially being set aside for ‘fit and able’ people, who will be given two-year tenancies on the condition they commit to actively looking for work or get into training or volunteering as a path into it. These tenants will be subject to regular meetings with housing staff to report their progress and risk being turfed out if they fail to stick to their side of the bargain.
Other local authorities will watch Wandsworth’s progress with interest. Jonathan Glanz, cabinet member for housing at 21,700-home Westminster Council, says he is looking ‘very closely’ at the authority’s plans. For now, Westminster has resolved to award 50 extra points in its points-based allocations system to those who are in work. But it is going further than other councils, stipulating that people must have been in work for a significant length of time - at least two years - or have been signed up to the homelessness employment and learning project, a charity-run scheme which works with Westminster to help tenants in temporary housing find a job.
The extra points will be applied from next January and the council estimates 800 working households on its 3,432-strong waiting list could benefit.
Mr Glanz describes those who will lose out as those ‘not working and not making any attempt to find work’. ‘We know that it’s not easy for people to find work at the moment, but there are jobs available in Westminster and we want people to be out there looking for them,’ he says.
‘We have generations of people in some of our estates where worklessness has been the norm. There have been workless lifestyles because people have had subsidised accommodation forever.’
The representatives of these local authorities speak about their plans with the confidence of those who know their thinking is fast becoming mainstream - but not everyone agrees with their ideas.
‘It is utterly unjust and inequitable to do this at a time when unemployment is growing and when, in many parts of the country, there are 10 or more applicants for every [job] vacancy,’ argues Eileen Short, chair of campaign group Defend Council Housing. ‘This is a kind of cynical, divisive [game of] playing off the deserving and undeserving poor [against each other] and turning the clock back to Victorian England.’
Hal Pawson, part-time housing professor at Edinburgh’s Heriot-Watt University, says prioritising applicants in employment ‘might make a marginal difference to the profile of the tenant population over a period of time’. However, he questions how realistic it is to expect this to prompt jobless people to find work. In fact, he warns that any employment incentive is likely to be ‘dwarfed’ by the employment disincentive resulting from social homes being re-let at 80 per cent of market rents under the government’s affordable homes programme.
These higher rents are unaffordable to people in low-paid jobs, so taking this type of work does not seem worthwhile, he suggests.
‘Even if such a policy could stimulate desire for employment, launching it against the backdrop of an economy poised on the brink of outright recession hardly seems like sensible timing,’ Mr Pawson warns.
Abigail Davies, assistant director of policy and practice at the Chartered Institute of Housing, stresses the need for councils to understand the housing market and the local economy before such changes are made. ‘Authorities also need to recognise that many households need a period of housing stability before they’re in a position to start considering moving towards employment,’ she says.
When pads are in short supply allowing some applicants to jump up the waiting list could be viewed as a crowd-pleasing way to incentivise employment. But local authorities considering introducing these policies must consider whether despite their best intentions they could actually be giving out-of-work residents another hurdle to leap over.
A government-commissioned report called Ends and means: the future roles of social housing in England, written by professor John Hills, social policy professor at the London School of Economics, kick-starts a debate in the housing sector. It challenges landlords to tackle worklessness on estates by scrutinising the way they allocate homes and looking at how social housing can help incentivise work
Newly appointed Labour housing minister Caroline Flint sparks uproar when she floats the idea that social tenants should have to sign contracts committing to look for work in order to get a home.
The Labour government publishes Fair and Flexible: statutory guidance on social housing allocations for local authorities in England. It gives councils more scope to use their housing stock to address local problems such as worklessness, as long as they continue to cater for those in statutory housing need.
The coalition government is elected.
The coalition’s Localism Bill is introduced to parliament. It includes plans to give councils the freedom to set their own policies dictating who qualifies for their waiting lists and to determine how long people stay in social homes, by fixing tenancies to periods as short as two years.
Labour leader Ed Miliband supports the principle of councils giving priority for social homes to people in work or contributing to their communities.
The Localism Bill becomes law.
What tenants think
‘I don’t think they’ve thought this through. Who took the word “social” out of housing? It’s a vicious circle. Nobody can do anything without a roof over their heads. You can’t get a job, get a doctor or get your kids into school.’
Hazel Reid, 60, Newham Council tenant
‘I’ve been volunteering all of my life and expect everybody else to get involved. I do believe that everybody has something that they can contribute. But they’re taking away all the [welfare] safety nets at the same time and that is going to lead to problems. There are too many sticks and not enough carrots.’
Hellen Doman, 51, tenant of housing association Housing Solutions in Maidenhead
‘I’d be against it if the council is trying to only put working people into homes, because where would you put other tenants who desperately need housing?’
Pat Higson, 63, a Parkway Green Housing Trust tenant and chair of Brooklands Tenants and Residents’ Association in south Manchester
‘If there’s no work, how are these people going to find it? Especially in the area I live in, where businesses are closing down every day?’
Carol Thipthorp, 67, a tenant of South Essex Homes, Southend Council’s arm’s-length management organisation
‘Family ties are going to be broken because children are going to have to move away to find somewhere to live. The elderly people on estates will also suffer, because family members supposed to look after them have to move away.’
Victor Adegbuyi, 65, Newham Council tenant