How the Conservatives ruined social housing

Despite Tory claims to protect social housing before the election, councils have been allowed to neglect their duty to house those in greatest need

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To all those shocked by revelations that quotas are being used to limit certain types of tenants from accessing new social housing in London’s Kings Cross Central development, I’ve got some bad news for you – this is what the future of social housing looks like in the Big Society.

Since coming to power in May 2010, the Coalition has gone to war on social housing and social tenants, especially in England and Wales, where the Localism Act 2011 mainly applies. Localism was sold to us by the Minister for Decentralisation, Greg Clark, as a new contract between people and the state to enable “a huge shift in power - from central Whitehall, to local public servants, and from bureaucrats to communities and individuals” 

Sounds great, but as the Kings Cross scandal reveals, Localism in practice means something more sinister – the freedom for councils to abandon their social duty to house those in greatest need on the diktats of private developers who, like the Chief Whip, don’t want too many ‘plebs’ mixing with the new urban gentry.

The Localism Act is a charter for transforming social housing from the most secure and affordable form of shelter to a highly conditionalised and temporary tenure whose inhabitants need to express daily gratitude for the taxpayer’s generous hand. Social landlords can now restrict access to housing waiting lists on grounds of “need”, give priority on moral grounds to particular groups of “deserving”citizens, like service personnel and their families, on grounds of their sacrifice to the nation, and draw on greater powers to evict their anti-social tenants including convictions for the sort of criminality seen in the recent rioting.

Most significant of all is how the massive cuts in subsidies for new social house building – which has decimated supply when 1.8m households are languishing on council waiting lists, nearly 70% more than a decade ago – have been used to attack security of tenure and controls on rents in England and Wales. To get a grant, social landlords are being forced to build a more expensive, less secure form of housing called “Affordable Rent” with rents reaching 80% of local market levels and ‘flexible’ tenancies only legally guaranteed for two years instead of for life as before. The abolition of statutory lifetime tenancies has since been extended to all new social tenants from April 2012.

Less well known is that local councils and housing associations can also convert a proportion of their existing stock to Affordable Rent when they re-let homes, meaning that secure, low-rent social homes will be gradually replaced by far more expensive, insecure properties with dire implications for low-income tenants in London particularly. 

Orwellian

If this sounds bad, wait until the ‘bedroom tax’ bites: from April 2013, welfare reform measures that have already cut housing benefit in the private rental sector will see “under-occupying” social tenants of working age across the UK lose 14% of their housing benefit for having one surplus bedroom and 25% for two or more. The government’s own figures – which almost always under-state the real impact – suggest that 660,000 households will lose on average £14 a week with 120,000 households losing more than £20 per week. Ministers, well-versed in Orwellian double-speak, say it’s all about fairness – to the taxpayers’ subsidising the ‘spare rooms’ and to those forced to live in overcrowded conditions or on waiting lists by the under-occupiers. But this is just nonsense. For families affected, what the state defines as a spare room will typically be a child’s bedroom; for many single tenants, this will have either been their home for decades or the only available home they were offered at the time due to the chronic shortages of social housing that resulted from earlier waves of privatisation and cuts.

Tenants will be forced to choose between greater poverty or moving home – but where will they go? Perhaps in the Coalition’s fantasy world, under-occupiers will magically swap with over-occupiers but in the real world this can’t happen for two simple reasons.

First, there is a general shortage of single occupancy social housing so people can’t downsize; and secondly, most of the over-crowding is in the South and most of the under-occupancy is in the North.

The Department for Work and Pensions’ own impact assessment spells out the consequences: “individuals may have to look further a field for appropriately sized accommodation or move to the private rented sector, otherwise they shall need to meet the shortfall through other means such as employment, using savings or by taking in a lodger or sub-tenant”.

Tears

When I spoke recently to a tenant in Leeds already suffering from depression and unable to work and now faced with this appalling choice, she broke down in tears and said she was thinking about killing herself , such was her anguish at the thought of being forced to either share her home with a total stranger or be moved out of her home and away from her friends and survival networks.

Deliberately misrepresenting social housing as the only subsidised tenure underpins the idea that under-occupancy is a social housing problem when official statistics show the phenomenon is far more acute in both the private rental and owner occupier sectors. It also underpins the Coalition’s tactic of associating social tenants as scroungers and social housing tenure as a cause of social disadvantage, when a key aim of Thatcherism was to ensure only households with the most acute social disadvantage could acquire a social housing tenancy.

Despite the obvious under-supply of social housing across the country, and most acutely in London, the Coalition wants us to believe that the real problem for this shortage lies within the social rented sector itself. How different it all looks now from David Cameron’s promise, just a week before the May 2010 General Election, that a Conservative Prime Minister would “support social housing… protect it, and…respect social tenants’ rights”. Not to mention his manifesto vow not to “allow the poorest people in Britain to pay an unfair price for the mistakes of some of the richest”

The post-election truth is that this was all pre-election subterfuge - a carefully planned PR operation by the Conservatives who dominate this Coalition to hide their real intentions of aggressively continuing and deepening the long-term assault on social housing and the welfare state that in many ways defined the Thatcherite project of neoliberalism.  Privatising public housing and eroding the hard-won rights of tenants has been central to this neo-liberal project precisely because of what social housing has historically represented – the most secure and affordable form of shelter that simultaneously curtails profit-making opportunities while rendering people less prone to flexible exploitation as workers. And this is exactly why the government of millionaires wants to destroy what’s left of it.

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