Bedroom farce

Mr Jones: […] We want housing association landlords and tenants to reap the benefits from shorter-term tenancies as well. However, we clearly need to consider any changes to housing associations in the light of the recent decision of the Office for National Statistics on classification. We are working through the ONS reclassification decision and considering the options but, given the complexity of the matter, careful consideration is needed. We will continue to work closely with the housing association sector, the social housing regulator and other stakeholders to finalise the deregulatory package, and we will consider any changes to lifetime tenancies in the context of that work. (Housing and Planning Bill committee 10 December 2015)

Brandon Lewis, housing minister, today announced the Pay to Stay policy would be made “voluntary” as part of a deregulation package to help reverse the Office for National Statistics (ONS) decision to reclassify housing associations as public. (Inside Housing 15 December 2015. CLG select committee hearing transcript not available yet.)

And just like that, the tiny withered fig leaf of principle was blown off the unmentionable parts of the Housing and Planning Bill.

A housing policy turned into a bedroom farce, as the Ministers, caught with Housing Association debt in the wrong bedroom, tried to explain why it was all a perfectly reasonable approach while looking for their trousers and hoping the incriminating debt didn’t fall out of the wardrobe in its underwear.

Let’s see.

Social tenancies should be subject to fixed terms because ‘it may prompt people who may otherwise not have thought about purchasing their own home to do so where they feel they are able to’ (yes an actual ministerial quote). Except for housing association tenants, unless the HA wants to have fixed terms, up to them really.

Housing Association tenants will have the right to buy. Assuming that the HA agrees that they might have the right in a purely voluntary way. I assume that the patrolling of HA RTB by the HCA will now be dropped from the Housing and Planning Bill.

Social tenants must pay market rents over a certain household income level (£40K pa in London, £30K pa outside). This is only fair because, um, other people have to pay market rents in the PRS and why should they be the only ones (Seriously, this was given as a justification. It is about fairness). Except Housing Association tenants, when it will be up to the HA to charge whatever it likes.

How can these policies be justified as necessary for local authorities and their tenants while at the very same time being wholly voluntary for housing associations to implement? Either they are necessary for the social housing sector as a whole (which of course they aren’t, in any way, shape or form, but let’s go along with the pretence for the moment), or, well they aren’t. They can’t be necessary  impositions on one part of social housing and ‘a bit of an idea that you might want to take up, if you feel like it, no pressure’ for another part of social housing.

And of course, one wonders about the brains involved in that ‘voluntary deal’ on HA RTB arranged by the NHF, supposedly to avoid the ONS reclassifying HA debt as public debt. Not only did that happen anyway (regardless of RTB), but the Government is so desperate to get the debt off the public debt that it is throwing all sorts of deregulation at the sector, and very definitely not imposing any further regulation like pay to stay or fixed term tenancies. If only the HA sector had waited for the ONS announcement first! Then they could have had a pony and the moon on a stick for free, without having to agree to anything in return.

I was tempted to also throw in the atrocious drafting of key parts of the Housing and Planning bill – are there any housing lawyers left at DCLG? – but I’m not going to go into detail. Not least because some of the drafting means that certain key bits of the Bill won’t actually work. It will be far too entertaining to watch that playing out for me to want to provide free hints to the Minister. That said, some of us did provide at least one free hint to the minister via the Bill committee and he gave every sign of having not understood it.

There is perhaps quite some competition for the title of ‘worst housing bill ever’, but the Housing and Planning Bill (rogue landlord provisions apart, which are actually sensible) is well on course to be the most damaging and ridiculous at the same time.

I wonder if this would be a good time for councils to set up housing associations to which to transfer their stock…

About Giles Peaker

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, and still is Nearly Legal on Google +.
Posted in Housing law - All, Regulation and planning.

15 Comments

  1. Once more with feeling?

    We’re dealing with a government that claims to believe that Affordable Housing is affordable, but won’t pay HB for it, because that’s not fair to hard-working families who can’t afford to live there; why expect consistency? Govt is not only no longer joined up with itself, it parts company with reality as and when required by ideological exigencies.

  2. An Act apparently dreamt up by a 25 year old Tory in a thinktank – almost difficult to think of terms of abuse that do not flatter it !

  3. A huge relief to many social tenants (though, unfortunately, not all) who had every reason to be terrified of the effects of the monstrous Pay to Stay proposals: many submissions to the Public Bill Committee pointed out the obvious flaws and injustices again and again, but the government obviously had its fingers in its ears – until £60bn of extra public debt had to be dealt with. Shame Orr and the NHF didn’t keep their nerve on the equally loony and destructive RTB policy….

    • Relief may be premature. Pay to stay may not be imposed, but there will clearly be a lot of lee way for HAs to charge what they fancy. And we will have to see if the access to HMRC data clauses remain in the Bill.

    • Indeed: it occurred to me after my original post that if the situation reverts to the present voluntary PTS arrangement, HAs won’t be able to implement it, as they have no right to tenants’ income details; if however, the Bill gives them discretionary powers and the right to require disclosure and to access HMRC information if they choose to exercise them, then we may see tenants in high cost (but often comparatively low wage) areas being penalised, while those in low cost areas, where the cost of implementation is likely to outweigh any extra revenue gained, will be unaffected. Whichever way you look at it and however changed or diluted the policy may be, there will still be injustices and it will do nothing whatever to lessen the desperate shortage of decent, genuinely affordable homes.

  4. A good piece as ever Giles…however, I just wondered why it is unfair that tenants who can afford to shouldn’t pay market rents? What is wrong with applying a little means-testing to social housing, especially as the genie is now out of the bottle and there is such limited supply?

    • Lots of reasons, but the immediate practical one is that it is likely to cost landlords more to administer than they would receive in increased rent (and LAs will have to give the extra to the treasury anyway).

    • Slight clarification; LAs will have to give the Treasury the amount of HIST rent that the Treasury assumes they should have collected (reasonably or otherwise), having deducted the costs of collection (set by the treasury, reasonably or otherwise). So we can assume that there will be a net balance payable to the Treasury even if the LA accounts show different.

    • Yes, but a) that is LAs only, not HAs and b) as you rightly point out, any resemblance between that figure and any actual increased rental income over admin costs is wholly coincidental.

  5. While accepting no transcript as yet and no written amendments it has been reported what Brandon Lewis said here (http://24dash.com/news/housing/2015-12-15-Brandon-Lewis-announces-deregulation-package-for-sector) and this makes the above comments seem far too kind.

    ““Abolishing the disposals proceeds fund, which means housing associations will no longer need to spend receipts from sales from Right to Buy and Right to Acquire according to rules set by the regulator.”

    So HAs can simply trouser the money and not build or simply build for outright sale and all on the back of the forced sale and reduction in capacity of council housing!

    On pay MORE to stay: – “Housing associations will also be able to operate policy that sets higher levels of rents for those with high income tenants and they will be able to set the level of rents for these households.”

    Note well this means full market rent and not LHA maxima and also there is no taper – and also means HA landlords can compete with the PRS for those who do earn above the (ahem) high income threshold.

    I never thought I would see the day when a Tory Housing Minister kills off the PRS as what tenant wouldn’t want a social landlord rather than a private one – they will pay the same rent yet have all the advantages of being a social tenant.

    And today sees the Independent say it was also stated by Brandon Lewis that there is no RIGHT to buy at all and nothing in powers to force the HA to sell…yes that will all end well won’t it and especially the 600 maximum sale pilot which so far is getting 5500 enquiries per month and will have 39,000 by the likely earliest onset of RTBe – just 38400 of 39000 will be aggrieved a mere 98.46%.

  6. Excellent appraisal. Is this the Pickles’ madness made manifest whilst he hides behind a sofa at a very safe distance? Surely the Housing and Planing Bill will ignite the fire of Human Rights’ lawyers. Swathes of Council and HA tenants can’t be treated so injudiciously regarding PTS etc.Human Rights are infringed by this Bill. Am I wrong?

  7. No Vivian you are not wrong…but it won’t matter because they are abolishing Human Rights too….

  8. This Governement are penalising LA tenants. I live with my brother in a LA council flat and he pays £320 rent pm. Luckily, I believe, but I’m not 100% sure, that I am not deemed as part of his household with regard to this policy and he doesn’t have a partner so his 18k wage is far below the 30k threshold. If I was deemed as part of his household I would probably have to leave my brother’s as his anticipated market rent would exceed £850-central Brighton. I would have to go into private accommodation and claim housing benefit..
    I do feel for those tenants that just pass the threshold and may have to reduce their income to avoid the extra charge.
    To clarify, what does household exaclty mean with regard to this Pay to Stay policy? Is an household a couple with their kids or joint tenants and their partners or both? Are lodgers and brothers and other family members not deemed as part of a tenant’s household?
    I guess sooner or later council tenants will be means tested to cover all the occupants of a property.
    Sort yourself out Labour as there will be no council homes left if this evil government is re-elected in 2020.

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