Cameron and Shapps have trailed a consultation paper to be published as early as tomorrow with a “plan to end lifetime council tenancies” (Inside Housing and The Guardian) and a “home swap scheme to help tenants move” (Today Programme and Inside Housing) (hat-tip to Katie Brown (HLPA junior group), J, and Francis Davey – e-mail’s been buzzing this morning – as well as he who cannot be named who tipped me off about this announcement a week or so ago). The idea behind both schemes is to facilitate labour mobility, which rather goes to the “end of housing policy” debate that did the rounds at the turn of this century (more on mobility below).
In essence, the end to “lifetime” tenancies seems to be a shift to “flexible tenure” which, in turn, looks like the grant of a tenancy for a fixed period (five or 10 years has been mooted), with a discretion to providers to extend after “regular reviews” and a potential to “force” council tenants to downsize. That is the sum of our knowledge so far. Apparently, the “problem” is that there are 1.8 million households on waiting lists (although, it might be added to that, that this signals the success of choice-based letting schemes to which there is no reference in the reports I’ve read). This signals the return of housing tenure to the attempt during the early period of the inter-war recession to get households out of council housing who no longer had a need for it (see the interesting discussion in the excellent Peter Malpass book Housing and the Welfare State). The reports I’ve read are short on knowledge about current housing law (woefully short to be frank), but the detail of this scheme, I suspect, will be pulled off the shelf from the delightful Caroline Flint’s time in office as housing minister (see the NL note). In other words, this is unlikely to be “new” other than in the fact that it could become real.
The home swap scheme is trailed by Inside Housing as “a freedom pass” scheme that allows swaps to take place over a national database “… to make it easier for tenants to move to find work without having to leave social housing”, although Shapps also mentioned on the Today programme moves to enable care to be given to relatives. Shapps trailed this in an “interview” with the Tory ConservativeHome Platform in November last year (hat tip to Francis for that). New Labour was already developing regional and sub-regional schemes for this purpose and aimed to create a national scheme (see the allocations guidance at para 29), so there is nothing particularly innovative about this element at all (and as well). Shapps also suggested that swaps might involve more than a simple two household swap, which sounds complex (ask Locata).
But it is worth questioning whether “mobility” for employment or other purposes is actually what tenants want. Transfer schemes are already available and the whole point of the “housing options interview” is to offer alternatives, including alternative locations for housing. Few social housing tenants take up these moves and/or transfers. The reasons for this are reported to be about the identity of communities (something which, one presumes, is close to Cameron’s heart) on social housing estates. The Impact Assessment of the allocations Code noted (at p 16) that
Significantly, immobility in the SRS may result not from the rigidity of the allocation system but from households’ rational response to the benefits of social networks that must often be forgone when moving. Tenants are not prevented from moving to areas with greater job opportunities, but rather choose not to sever family and other social ties just to improve their access to jobs (Fletcher, 2008). This is particularly the case where jobs are, or are perceived to be, low paid and insecure. When surveyed, social tenants do not feel their chances are impaired by their tenure (DWP, 2008). This implies allocation policies are not the main barriers to mobility in the social sector and consequently that the new guidance is unlikely to bring about much greater levels of mobility.
Labour mobility may be just one reason for moving, but the whole point of an allocation system based on choice (again, presumably, something close to the Tory heart) is that it responds to, well, choice, particularly when it is a rational choice based on a survey of the employment “opportunities” available.
Further, one of the key reasons for introducing security of tenure in 1980 was to link the right to buy to it. How will the right to buy fare under the “flexible tenure” scheme?
Anyway, rant over – let’s wait and see the detail of the scheme.