Housing policy was one of the areas where the previous Conservative government achieved some major successes, particularly with the introduction of the Right to Buy in 1980 and the introduction of private finance to fund new social housing development in 1990. In the Thatcher period housing policy had a clear sense of direction, and whether one agreed with it or not, no one was in any doubt why action was being taken.
However, things are not so clear with the Conservative-dominated coalition government. Whilst the housing minister, Grant Shapps, has been very active and the Department of Communities is making the running in terms of decentralisation and financial transparency, there is still no real sense of direction in housing policy. Indeed the coalition seems to be pursuing policies that are in direct contradiction with each other.
Grant Shapps has fulfilled his election promise to make it easier for social housing tenants to move from one area to another, effectively giving tenants the right to a move. In addition, the statutory basis on which social housing must be allocated is to be changed to move away from purely needs-based lettings and towards allowing access for working households. Both these reforms should encourage more diversity and start to deal with the huge level of welfare dependency in social housing.
But, at the same time as these changes were being announced, the Prime Minster argued in public for an end to security of tenure in social housing and for tenants to be periodically means tested to ensure that those who can afford to buy or rent in the private sector do not block access to households in priority need. There is some logic to this, especially with the low levels of new building and the lengthening housing lists of many social landlords. However, a policy of time-limited tenancies would actually encourage the very opposite forms of behaviour that Grant Shapps’ reforms are meant to inculcate.
Why get a job if it means losing your home? Why move to take up a job in another part of the country if that will mean you will lose your tenancy? Why are social landlords being encouraged to house working households and so “exclude” even more of those in priority need?
There is a confusion here in the purpose of housing policy and someone needs to get the signals right: is the priority to help those most in need or to deal with welfare dependency? I’m sure that politicians will argue it ought to be possible to do both. But the objectives will not be achieved by the conflicting policies currently on offer.