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29/06/2009

The good, the bad and the aesthetically challenged

‘Building Britain’s Future’, a broad Government policy direction document, has been put out and must be regarded as an early draft of the Labour election manifesto. As people may well have heard, social housing and the allocation thereof features in the plan.

If you skip to page 82 of the full PDF, the suggestions are laid out in tantalising vagueness. Given the ‘to be announced’ nature of most of the contents (and, one presumes, the election based provisionality of much of it), what is actually in there?

The good –

we will consult on reforming the council housing finance system and allow local authorities to keep all the proceeds from their own council house sales and council rents. We want to see a bigger role and more responsibility for local authorities to meet the housing needs of people in their areas.

OK, only a consultation, but hurrah, finally. A potential end to the the ridiculous strangulation of funding for council housing.

Also good –

While preserving security of tenure we will pursue reforms to tackle these problems.

So hopefully that is the tenure shibboleth off the table.

Not sure if it is good or not, or even workable, but certainly interesting –

we will expand Choice Based Lettings to help residents move nationwide, and we will offer support to tenants who need to move to take up the offer of a new job.

This is an intriguing prospect, and one that, if it is made workable, could certainly be a good thing.

The bad –

we will launch an autumn crackdown on fraud within the sector, freeing up homes for those in need. Further details on this initiative will follow in the next few weeks.

And why is this bad? Not because a crackdown on fraudulent tenancies or sub-letting is bad, far from it, but because this is hardly a central government issue to resolve and the ‘autumn initiative’ smacks of classic knee jerk PR and central ‘targets’. It is unlikely to work, will cost a lot and change little. I may, of course be proved wrong and would be happy to be so. But I doubt it. ‘Autumn initiative’ indeed.

The aesthetically challenged? This is the one I’m sure you’ve all heard about –

we will change the current rules for allocating council and other social housing, enabling local authorities to give more priority to local people and those who have spent a long time on a waiting list.

Where to start? Waiting lists already give priority to time on list, at least those on CBL schemes. If priority is to be given to time on list per se over any other priority, then allocation schemes will become a farce. All those people who have been on the lowest (no hope) band for years are hardly going to get much more hope if they all get increased priority.

And then ‘local people’. What does this mean – really? What is to be the definition of ‘local’? Will it come from the League of Gentlemen? Nick Griffin? A local connection of some sort? Years in the borough? Kids in local schools? Or what?

Until we know, this has an unpleasant ring to it, based, as I noted at the time of Hodge’s expectoration, not upon facts but a tabloid version of them. I await a housing options interviewer saying ‘you be not from around these parts, be you? You be from north of the river. We b’aint be having with your fancy ways round here’ as a valid eligibility decision. But we will have to wait for whatever stroke of genius comes forth on this issue.

My confident prediction is that whatever it is, it will be thoroughly litigated. I would have thought that Gordon ‘British jobs for British workers’ Brown would have learnt that certain ‘dogwhistle’ (as the charming political consultants call them) phrases were dangerous to deploy…

As to what is introduced before the election and what gets to be introduced afterwards, we will have to see. There are certainly some good or intriguing proposals in there and we have to hope that those see the light of day.

[Edit And a £1.5 billion investment:

Extra funding so councils and housing associations can build around 15,500 new affordable homes, of which over 11,000 will be available for social rental and the rest will be affordable housing. More may be built if greater value for money can be achieved.
Extending the Kickstart programme that gets stalled housing sites back on track, with the aim of delivering an additional 13,000 homes, of which 4,000 will be affordable.
Investing in the development of public sector land owned by the HCA, Local Authorities and other public sector bodies to deliver up to 1,250 units of which 500 could be affordable.

What that blurb doesn’t say is that £1.5 billion includes diverting funds that had been set aside for renovating existing social housing, according to the Guardian, so Decent Homes funding may be drying up.]

Giles Peaker is a solicitor and partner in the Housing and Public Law team at Anthony Gold Solicitors in South London. You can find him on Linkedin and on Twitter. Known as NL round these parts.

6 Comments

  1. Mark

    The BBC are reporting Shadow Housing Minister Grant Shapps as saying that the plan to give local people greater priority would be unlawful:

    http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk_politics/8125663.stm

    Can’t help but think these new housing initiatives have an air of unreality about them. I suppose they can rush through amendments in the time they’ve got left, but what can seriously be achieved to address housing supply in under a year.

    Reply
    • NL

      Not wholly sure I buy that on the grounds given by the Shadow Minister – the ‘duty to tackle socio-economic disadvantage in the Equality bill’ – as arguably giving a priority to those longest on the waiting list is ‘tackling socio-economic disadvantage’. And his helpful observation about the current reasonable preference categories doesn’t mean that they can’t be changed in law. But until we have some more details it is hard to be at all sure.

      It does look like Decent Homes will evaporate to pay for the plans, though.

      Reply
      • Francis Davey

        The disappearance of Decent Homes will cheer many leaseholders (who ended up paying through the nose for it) but may be bad news for climate change (since many of the schemes increased energy efficiency) and so on.

        Reply
        • NL

          I was being all disinterested there, sympathizing with my tenant clients, but out of pure self interest, the curtailing of decent homes would also be good for disrepair cases, of course.

          But you are right about the leaseholders, who are also my clients. The trouble is that there is likely to be ongoing and sustained neglect of the estates and a whopping bill somewhere down the line.

      • Mark

        NL, quite agree. Don’t see how you can credibly level that kind of criticism without knowing the specifics. The devil, as always, is in the detail. It surely would be ironic though if Decent Homes, arguably the only major progressive pro-council housing policy initiative under New Labour, were jettisoned.

        Reply
      • chief

        As you say those who have been longest on the waiting list might be considered to be socio-economically disadvantaged, but regardless I don’t see that the weak socio-economic duty is going to make a lot of difference to many situations:
        An authority to which this section applies must, when making decisions of a strategic nature about how to exercise its functions, have due regard to the desirability of exercising them in a way that is designed to reduce the inequalities of outcome which result from socio-economic disadvantage.

        I think that leaves plenty of wiggle room for most approaches.

        Reply

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