Housing – winding the clock back

[Originally posted at Liberal Democrat Voice, 12/11/12]

Friday 9th November 2012 could well come to be seen as a landmark date in the history of English housing policy. A key change introduced by the Localism Act 2011 came into effect. The Liberal Democrats are part of the Government presiding over the change. Is it a change we can be proud of?

Local authorities can now discharge their statutory homelessness duty by allocating households a tenancy in the private rented sector rather than in social housing. This has been an option for years. But until now to pursue this route the local authority has had to secure agreement from the household concerned. The Localism Act removes this requirement. Households can be sent to a twelve month private sector tenancy without the local authority needing their agreement. This would constitute discharge of the homelessness duty.

Given the housing benefit cap introduced as part of the welfare reform agenda, local authorities in areas of high housing costs face a challenge. There are few, if any, properties in their local private sector that are affordable to homeless households.

So local authorities have been looking further afield to find properties at rents that will be affordable, given housing benefit restrictions. Homeless households could face relocating by hundreds of miles to secure suitable independent accommodation. London boroughs are reported to be in negotiations with authorities in areas including Birmingham, Nottingham, Manchester and Merthyr Tydfil.

Yet, the Housing Minister has made public pronouncements that there is no reason for local authorities to send people hundreds of miles for rehousing. To do so would undermine family and support networks, disrupt children’s schooling, and break established connections with other public services such as child protection. Ministerial statements insist that homeless households being housed in the private rented sector should to be housed locally. Indeed, it is recognised that local authorities deciding to house homeless households at great distance leave themselves open to challenge via judicial review.

Here, as in many other areas of policy, the Government is being more than a little disingenuous. Ministers know they have placed many local authorities in an invidious position. It will simply not be possible for some local authorities to square the circle.

In fact, the lack of transparency over the government’s underlying agenda appears to go further. It seems that departmental officials are briefing local authorities that to realise the government’s objectives fully they should actively be seeking to send homeless households out of area. This will free up social housing for “genuinely” deserving households who are judged to be making a particularly valuable contribution to the area. This is about opening up more social housing to those in low paid work or who volunteer in the community or tenants who can demonstrate good behaviour. A report in the Guardian suggests that the department is also briefing local authorities on how to pursue this agenda while minimising the risk of being judicially reviewed.

Spatial segregation would not be an unforeseen and unfortunate side effect of this policy. It is being actively promoted.

This strand of policy thinking has been developing since the late period of New Labour, but it looks like 9th November heralded the arrival of the final piece of the puzzle. It provides a key tool for delivering on the agenda. And the Government seeks to bolster its position by reheating all the old chestnuts about people using the homelessness route strategically to jump the queue for social housing.

There is a suggestion that the Government’s underlying objective is to make the statutory homelessness route so unattractive that eventually no one pursues it.

Access to social housing has always been shaped by a tension between need and suitability. Until the 1960s, access to social housing depended heavily upon assessments of households’ moral desert judged through indicators such as housekeeping standards. The housing visitor was not necessarily welcome. The subjective and discriminatory nature of these assessments was deemed to be unacceptable. They were replaced with the more objective – but of course never fully objective – assessments of need that have evolved into the system as it is today.

The fear is that the reshaping of social housing allocations policy returns us to a system in which access is based upon frontline officers’ discretionary decision-making. The risk of discrimination and disadvantage is self-evident. In the 1970s we moved beyond such a system. But now we are winding the clock back to an earlier, less enlightened era.

This is just one area, among many, in which the Government is intent on systematically unpicking the fabric of the welfare state. It spends time on ill-conceived policies addressing the symptoms of the problem, rather than effective policies addressing the causes.

Are you proud to be party to that? I can’t honestly say that I am.


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