When Mrs Thatcher came to power in 1979, council tenants had no security of tenure. If local authorities wished, they could serve a notice to quit on their tenants and they would have to go. The previous Labour government had a draft housing bill which included a 'tenants' charter' which would have granted security of tenure for tenants. Parts of this bill became the 1980 Housing Act, which included security as well as the right to buy. Thatcher and her Tory cabinet believed - albeit for political reasons - that council tenants deserved a better deal than they had had before. Security of tenure was undoubtedly a step forward for individual tenants as well as the collective tenant movement, which had campaigned on the issue for several years. This level of security, which has meant that tenants have a right to stay in their home for the rest of their lives as long as they keep to the terms of their tenancy agreements. Eviction could only be carried out if a court order was granted by a county court judge, and this was usually on the grounds of persisent non-payment of rent or engagement in serious anti-social behaviour. One of the additional rights that the 1980 Act bestowed was the right - under certain circumstances - to pass their tenancy on to a surviving family member.
These rights to security and to succession have been established as cornerstones of council and housing association tenancies ever since. However, since the election of the Conservative - Liberal Democrat coalition government, there has been a persistent attack upon these rights, as well as other attempts to effectively change the role of social housing within the overall provison of housing in the country.
During the summer, Cameron floated the idea that the days of the 'lifetime tenancy' may be numbered - with speculation that 5 to 10 years may be more appropriate. Now we are hearing some more definite proposals from the housing minister, Grant Shapps - and the news is that tenancies may not be restricted to 5 or 10 years in length, but only 2 years! It appears that councils would be able to assess the financial circumstances of tenants after this two-year period, to decide whether they have 'improved' themselves and therefore no longer in need of a social tenancy. Some have argued that the real assessment here is whether the tenant has progressed from being 'undeserving' to 'deserving'.
One of the other developments in council housing has been the removal of subjective judgements by local authority officers and councillors in terms of the allocation of housing. Previously, housing visitors used to inspect prospective tenants' homes and make reports as to their 'standard' and 'suitability' for council housing - all irrespective of housing need. Legisaltion has put paid to this ultra-paternalistic approach, but this is now under threat from the current plans.
There are several practical issues related to the proposals. Here are two of them. First, how are councils going to assess the finances of tenants? Who will have the power to check back accounts? What criteria will be used to make these assessments? What guidance will councils be given, or will there be a general power under the guise of localism, to make decisions on where people are allowed to live? Secondly,could the policy become a disincentive to gaining decent employment, as tenants who do secure a relatively well paid job could be at risk of losing their home. Is there evidence of joined-up thinking across departments here?
The 1996 Housing Act, passed by the the Major government, reduced the duty to provide housing to the homeless to a two-year period rather than a lifetime tenancy. Did this work? No, indeed it did not. There were serious problems which led to a 'revolving door' for tenants - when the two years were up they had to rely on usually unsuitable private rented accommodation under an insecure assured shorthold tenancy, which often lasted six to twelve months. Then they were forced to approach the council again as homeless...etc. etc. The result here, apart from the unsettling nature of the system, led to families - and children in particular - not being able to access essential services, including health provision and settled schooling. Is this the intention of the coalition government? Perhaps Mr Shapps needs to read and consider some of the research that was conducted at the time on this subject.
Social housing providers have been involved in dramatically changing their role over the past 20 years or so. Instead of being mere landlords and concentrating on the 'bricks and mortar' of housing - they have widened their remit to become providers and facilitators of services for some of the most vulnerable people in society. Support for people with mental health problems or learning disabilities have been provided. Services for people with addictions and people leaving the armed forces have also been delivered. Councils and housing associations have been at the forefront of the development of communties where people want to live and want to continue to live. Communities which are safe and secure, where tenants can develop skills and confidence and a pride of place, and put down roots to bridge gaps between generations and beliefs. Does the housing minister believe that the current proposals will assist in this vital work? Does he think that this work has not been worthwhile?
Yes, there is a long waiting list for the nation's social housing. Cuts to the investment in new social housing is to be slashed. Is this two-pronged policy the real solution to the 'problems' around social housing? Perhaps there is another route, but will the housing minister reconsider? Perhaps there needs to be a concerted campaign, like the one that brought about security of tenure in the first place.