Council homes should not be for life, says Cameron

The old maxim that "an Englishman's home is his castle" will cease to apply to thousands of young families in the near future, if David Cameron has his way.

The Prime Minister believes that new council and housing association tenants should be told that they can occupy their new homes only for as long as those in authority think they need them, after which they will be ordered to move out.

The sort of people who will be forced out of their homes will include the upwardly mobile – who will risk being told that if their income has gone up, they should buy a place of their own instead of paying rent – and couples whose children have grown up and left home.

As Mr Cameron floated the idea during a visit to the West Midlands yesterday, he forecast that it would cause “a big argument”.

He was responding to a mother of two teenagers who told him that she had slept on a blow-up bed for two years because the council could not find adequate housing for her. Mr Cameron implied that the problem was caused by tenants not moving through the housing chain.

“At the moment we have a system very much where, if you get a council house or an affordable house, it is yours forever and in some cases people actually hand them down to their children. And actually it ought to be about need,” he said.

He added that many councils run “swap” schemes to move tenants into homes that suited their needs, but he went on: “There is a question mark about whether, in future, should we be asking, actually, when you are given a council home, is it for a fixed period, because maybe in five or 10 years you will be doing a different job and be better paid and you won't need that home, you will be able to go into the private sector.

“So I think a more flexible system – that not everyone will support and will lead to quite a big argument... looking at a more flexible system, I think makes sense.” He added that changes to tenancy agreements would apply only to new tenants.

The “big argument” that the Prime Minister foresaw began almost as soon as he had spoken, with critics pointing out that his government plans to push house building down to its lowest level in almost a century, when there are already 4.5 million on housing waiting lists. Next year, it is expected that fewer than 100,000 new homes will be built, for the first time since 1923, because of cuts in public spending. The National Housing Federation has forecast that the cuts will add 350,000 to the already swollen waiting lists.

The Labour MP Nick Raynsford, a former housing minister who chairs Triathlon Homes, a venture building affordable homes in the Olympic village, warned that Mr Cameron’s idea threatens to turn council and housing association estates into “ghettoes” – something which the Work and Pension Secretary Iain Duncan-Smith has warned against.

“If you say that every council tenant who betters himself and increases his income has to leave, then council housing is automatically available only to the poorest and most vulnerable, which would aggravate the problem of ghettoisation that Iain Duncan Smith has highlighted,” he said.

“It is complete nonsense for David Cameron to be blaming council tenants for the housing shortage when the extent of under occupation in social housing is actually much lower than in private properties, and when his government is making the housing shortage worse.”

Kay Boycott, Director of Communications at the housing charity Shelter, warned that the plan might not save as much money as Mr Cameron imagined, because councils would have to hire a large number of extra staff to review tenancy agreements and identify families who had outstayed their need.

She added: “David Cameron came face to face with the sort of human tragedy we see every day at Shelter, with millions forced to live in unacceptable conditions.

“Whilst it is crucial the Government asks questions about how we tackle our growing housing crisis, we do not believe the bigger question in housing policy is security of tenure for new tenants.

“Recent forecasts estimate that housing delivery could fall below 100,000 next year for the first time since 1923. Yet the Prime Minister has sidestepped the fundamental cause of our housing crisis, the desperate lack of affordable housing supply.”