One of the problems with policy making (and sometimes politics more generally) is that it can operate at a very abstract level. If you’re sitting in a Whitehall office doing a Minister’s bidding, the reality of how policy affects lives and communities is very distant. This detachment is exacerbated in the housing field which is too often portrayed as being the preserve of ‘experts’ when in fact, no issue more directly affects the lives of us all. The Housing and Planning Bill is a perfect illustration of an ideologically driven policy that will have real consequences long-beyond the limited time horizon’s of politicians and civil servants.
I’ve been thinking lately about how the Bill, if it’s passed in its current form, will affect the small London council estate where I work. It’s no exaggeration to say that within a generation, it could be transformed beyond recognition. To some degree, that change is already in train, driven by the forces of property market speculation that swirl around and occasionally through it. This is precisely the government’s intention – to remove once and for all any sense that housing can be about more than private profit, consumption and exchange.
The estate is currently surrounded by building sites, evidence of a local development frenzy. Like the new multi-storey blocks, house prices and rents are soaring above the working class families struggling to keep a toehold in their community. From the government’s perspective though, they live in a ‘high value area’ and so, under the Housing and Planning Bill, every time there’s an empty council home on the estate, it will be sold on the open market. We don’t get that many ‘voids’ (housing jargon for empty homes), partly testament to what has been a relatively stable population. But thinking about some of those we’ve had in the last few years, the real implication of this aspect of the Bill become clear.
- When Ian died, his one-bedroom flat was made available to an 18 year-old care-leaver, someone with multiple mental and physical health difficulties, but who was offered an opportunity to live an independent life (with support), an affordable rent and a secure tenancy. Despite some continuing problems, I’ve seen her grow in confidence and maturity, partly because she’s in an environment where there are strong social networks and controls.
- When Phyllis moved to a care home, her ground-floor flat went to someone the Council needed to move from an estate undergoing major repairs. The new tenant has medical issues that make her ‘vulnerable’, but we’re able to maintain regular contact with her and try to help with repairs and decorating she’d otherwise find difficult. Living in council housing with a secure tenancy doesn’t solve all her problems, but without it, I think she could end up on the streets.
- When Arthur died (having lived on the estate since it was built) and Enzio found a smaller flat he could manage with his gammy leg, their three-bedroom homes were made available to the next families on the waiting list, both of which had been living in overcrowded conditions for years.
None of these things could have happened if these four publicly owned, publicly paid-for homes had been sold, as the Housing Bill would require.
‘Pay to Stay’
I estimate between half and two-thirds of the council tenants on the estate could be affected by ‘Pay to Stay’, the policy within the Bill that would introduce means testing to council and social housing for the first time. When I told one couple they could see their rent double or even treble their immediate reaction was ‘we’ll have to move or stop working’. They earn little more than the minimum wage, but their household income would exceed the £40,000 (£30,000 outside London) limit after which the government wants to charge tenants market or ‘near market’ rents.
Right to Buy 2
That couple’s other option might be the resurrected Right to Buy (RTB), now due to be extended to housing association tenants. If they were to buy their home, not only would another permanent affordable home be lost, but the estate would move from being majority tenanted to majority ‘owner-occupied’. This has numerous practical implications that are rarely considered by policy makers blinded by the assumed ideological and political potency of using public money to promote private home ownership. The inherent double-standard of £billions beings spent on feeding the housing market while public housing is falsely described as subsidised becomes egregious under the Housing Bill which will require councils to pay a levy to housing associations (HAs) to pay for RTB discounts. There’s a large HA estate near where I work, owned by a private organisation that a couple of years ago made an annual surplus of £35 million, had reserves of £290 million, paid its Chief Executive £192,000 and are part of the ‘Group of 15’ big HAs with increasingly commercial culture and practices. If the Bill’s passed, they’ll receive a gratuity from a council currently forecasting 14% cuts in front-line housing services.
Potentially the most significant part of the Bill – and one sneaked in at the last moment – is the government’s intention of ending permanent secure tenancies. It’s hard to overstate how damaging this could be for estates like the one where I work. Some of the tenants have been living here for decades, a few since it was built in the mid.1960s. This pattern of settled, inter-generational residency is the bedrock of a strong community like the one I work for, where people know and look out for each other. Such cohesion will be impossible if new tenancies are made time-limited. I see the proof of this every day at work where about 25% of residents are private renters on short-term tenancies. They aren’t part of the day-to-day life of the estate because they don’t know how long they’re going to be living here. We have an active residents’ organisation, but none of its members are private renters. Among the other government objectives in the Bill is to undermine the collective solidarity that council estates represent and reduce them to a state of market-dominated, impersonal transience
The Housing and Planning Bill exposes the contradictory, tangled and perverse consequences of abstract policy making, but it would be wrong to regard them us unintended. There is a fundamentalist aspect to the Bill that refutes the entitlement of people with low incomes to live in ‘high value’ places, unless they are willing or able to become owner-occupiers. The Tory government wants to reduce renting from the Council or an HA to the housing of last resort, a policy that has had disastrous results in the US.
Last year someone told me about a play he was writing in which he compared what’s happening on estates with the Highland Clearances. At the time, that sounded slightly exaggerated. It seems less so now.