Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

What lies behind Tory housing plans

Tory plans to end secure tenancy are clearly driven by anti-tenant ideology and political manouevring. But estates are not perfect and Labour must think carefully about a progressive set of policies on renting and ownership.

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David Cameron’s announcement yesterday that social housing should not be for life came as a shock to many, not least some of his increasingly queasy Lib Dem coalition partners. It didn’t to me, or many others who have seen the frontline of a new battle on housing begun by flagship Tory councils in the past few years. And it is further worrying proof that, for all of the progressive mood music of the coalition, David Cameron still relies on the hardliners in his own party when it comes to making policy.

From 2008 to the beginning of this year I was the Labour election organiser and agent in Hammersmith, home to not only Tory A-List parliamentary candidate Shaun Bailey (who, in the event, was swept aside with some ease by Andy Slaughter’s energetic campaign) but also David Cameron’s “favourite” council, and its leader, Stephen Greenhalgh.

Greenhalgh, who sits at the apex of the Tory political machine in Hammersmith and Fulham, has had his sights fixed more widely than the borough boundary since the Tories took office in 2006. Housing is the battleground, and for purely partisan reasons, as he makes clear in this article for Conservative Home in February 2009:

We ask here whether this is the time to reform social housing. It may not be an issue for the current intake of Conservative MPs at this time, but it will become an issue for many new MPs elected from target marginals which have far higher levels of social housing. Figures supplied to Greg Hands MP from the Commons Library show that shadow housing minister Grant Shapps’s seat (Welwyn Hatfield) has the highest percentage of social rented housing of any Conservative seat. Some key targets have huge percentages: Hammersmith at 36 per cent, Westminster North at 30 per cent and Birmingham Edgbaston and Battersea both at 29 per cent.

Plainly, if social housing is a “problem”, it is only insofar as its residents have an annoying habit of denying the Conservatives victory in marginal seats. This narrative received dressing in predictable Thatcherite clothing: council housing entrenches deprivation and prevents social mobility, and social tenants would be far better off if the state relieved them of this burden.

Hammersmith and Fulham have a single solution to the social and political problems they saw in council housing: get rid of it, or at least a large part of it. By early 2009 we were aware of a number of large estates earmarked for demolition and redevelopment, amounting to over 5,000 homes in total.

More ominously – and most relevant for tenants lucky enough to not have Councillor Greenhalgh as their landlord – was the wider development of Tory housing policy: the idea of ending security of tenure came first in Stephen Greenhalgh’s 2009 pamphlet for the Localis thinktank.

Leaked minutes of a private Localis meeting went much further. This time, Stephen Greenhalgh acted as host to the Conservative housing policy elite: Grant Shapps was in attendance, as was Shaun Bailey, deputy London mayor Kit Malthouse, and a host of Tory council leaders. Details can be found on Andy Slaughter’s website. After agreeing that “the sacred cows need to be shot” and describing council estates as “barracks for the poor”, the attendees discussed a range of planned changes to the fabric of social housing: ending security of tenure in favour of a new model, based on the Assured Shorthold Tenancy; bringing social rents into line with those in the private letting sector (which would mean more than quadrupling them in many parts of London); selling, rather than letting, vacant properties; all with the aim of drastically reducing the quantity of social housing stock in the UK.

The Tory position on housing is thus laid bare. Social housing is a problem for the Tories. Social tenants don’t like the Conservatives, as their anti-Tory voting record makes plain; and the Tories don’t much like them either, since the involvement of the state in providing housing is an assault on their political beliefs. Eroding the security of tenants thus satisfies Tory sensibilities, and throws the prospect of greater electoral success into the bargain.

The opposition that progressives must provide is obvious, but is harder than we imagine. Although tenants are rightly furious that their homes are under assault, they can see for themselves that the estates where they live aren’t perfect – so we must avoid thinking ourselves into a place where we merely advocate the status quo, and convince ourselves that council housing, as it is, is the answer. It isn’t.

David Cameron’s announcement, incorporating as it does the Hammersmith-style rhetoric of “expensive homes for life on the taxpayer”, tries to put forward a myth about social housing that is similar to those the Tories expound on other benefits: that some people live fat on the proceeds of the state, and that they are the enemy of the truly needy. In all of my campaigning work in a borough with lots of large estates, I have found such families extremely difficult to find. Far easier to find are the families in chronic overcrowding and housing need, who require newbuild to house them; pretending that a minority of tenants hoarding housing are the problem is a disingenuous smokescreen for the Tories, who control councils across Britain which have overtly failed to provide new properties to ease overcrowding.

The Tories have the beginnings of a point when they say that a number of social housing tenants aspire to home ownership; but clearly the path to achieving this ought not to mean removing the security of the rented homes they currently have. I aspire to own a better car, for example, but I fail to see how this aspiration would be moved forward by being forced to part with my current motor because the government says it’s keeping me down. We should say so, and put forward progressive alternatives which involve giving tenants an increasing stake in their home so that they can purchase it or move on when they are able, and where the proceeds are put into more newbuild social housing for the many thousands on the waiting lists. Subsidised public housing, with the rent controlled, at least allows them to save income that would otherwise be paying the landlord of an expensive private let: one option would be to place a proportion of social rent collected into an account for the tenant, redeemable if they choose to leave social housing.

Most of all we need to address the core issue of housing, whether social or private, to rent or to buy – lack of supply. Unless we are willing to advocate a comprehensive solution to this, involving not only better options for social tenants but also changes to planning procedures so that newbuild is easier and a better prospect for developers, we may allow the issue of housing to slip into the Tories’ hands.

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David Green

was organiser in Hammersmith 2008-10


  • Yes, I broadly agree. We should advocate the idea of a transportable secure tenancy agreement for those who agree or want to move in order to find or take up work or those who simply want to downsize. At the moment many who do take the decision to leave their current council home find themselves having to take advantage of a less secure tenancy agreement elsewhere whether social housing or private is their destination. Such a policy would have ramifications for how housing associations would be able to secure adequate rental incomes from tenants who may bring with them a right to a more secure tenancy, but for such tenants any state subsidy should follow the tenant rather than the bricks and mortar – and surely such an approach would be cheaper for the state than shelling out Housing Benefit to those who are at present effectively trapped in their present council home without any prospects of work in their present location. As David suggests, the revenue from Council or Housing Association sales should be ringfenced for further housing development to replace old of stock. I do agree with the Tory proposal that existing tenants should be subject to a review, be it five yearly or slightly longer to ascertain if shared ownership or in someone like Frank Dobson’s case out right ownership, is feasible, although having worked in the past in social housing management I would doubt that many existing tenants would have the resources to move into shared ownership, so perhaps this last point is a bit of red herring.

  • Remind me how many council houses did New Labour sell, let me remind you my council had two referendum on getting rid of council houses lost both and still sold them off. Labour/ Tory same party.

  • The Tories hate Council housing for the reasons David Green gives. Tories of my acquaintance would be happy to spend a few days putting the “Keys of the Property” through every tenant’s door thus disposing of Council housing forever. As it was they sold vast swathes of stock off very cheaply under the ‘Right to Buy.’ What puzzles me is why they think that when they have got rid of Council Tenants to become new members of the ‘Property Owning Democracy’ they will all start voting Tory in perpetual gratitude. As for Housing Associations, in my experience they seem to be run by those that could not get jobs with local authorities.

  • A very disappointing article! Where are the progressive set of policies promised in the second sentence!

    We are the only country in Europe to allow no fault evictions. International lawyers have condemed the UK system as barbaric. The solution lies in a tenure system which is fair but tenure neutral.

    Bizarrely, it was the tories who introduced security of tenure for council tenants in 1980, which at that time was the privilege of private tenants. Until then council tenants who failed to pay due deference to their landlords and betters could be put out without even a court hearing. Not suprisingly, there was little demand for council housing in inner city estates which was often let to students to fill the empty spaces.

    In 1989, true to form, the tories abolished security of tensure for private tenants, selling a myth that this was preventing private landlords from renting out homes privately. Supply remained the same and in the face of lack of security of tenure and retaliatory evictions people turned to council housing to meet their needs.

    In 1993, the tories decided that it would allow mortgage interest to be deductable against rental income. This is the only investment that you can take a loan out for and have the interest tax deductable against the income. This had two serious consequences for the residential property market. Segmentation of the market occurred and private landlords were able to pay significantly more than the property was worth to an owner occupier and many hundreds of thousands of first time buyer homes disappeared from the market. The second serious consequence was that it no longer became competetive for pension funds and institutional investors to put their money in property. If the price of the asset goes up and the rent remains the same, then rates fall from 7% to 3% making equities or even bonds a better return, which in turn fuelled demand for equities and the stockmarket bubble.

    Private landlords made hay, most often at tax payers expense through an ever increasing housing benefit bill. People who previously would have been able to buy a starter home were left with the choice of living in the private rented sector paying rents through housing benefit that were more than their total earnings, possibly facing repeated homelessness for them and their children or joining a council waiting list for a place that they don’t want to live in but have no choice.

    The current policy has a devastating effect on people’s lives, especially for children whose educational attainment suffers when they lose on average 13 weeks school if they become homeless.

    A progressive answer is:
    1/ security of tenaure for private, council and housing association tenants alike
    2/ a basic housing allowance to be included in all in and out of work benefits regardless of tenure
    3/ right to buy, not only for council tenants but for private tenants too – if you’ve lived somewhere for 20 years as your home why shouldn’t have the right to buy it?
    4/ all council and housing association housing to be managed locally by tenants – this would get the anti social behaviour dealt with the repairs done and the rents down
    5/ no special tax breaks for buy to let landlords and tax relief for buy to let investment should be no different to other investmentremained the same – pension funds and other funds would bring investment in housing
    4/ imputed rental income tax introduced, as the Swiss do now and we did before 1963 on all second homes, especially those owned by ex-pat and nom dom tax avoiders who want the tax payer to subsidise their council tax which is two thirds funded from general taxation. This would bring new properties onto the market.

  • How many Labour activists live in social housing?
    That is why they write articles which are detached from reality.
    Ending lifelong tenancies was first proposed under Labour by Caroline Minister Minister of Housing. Remember?
    The issue of impending benefit cuts is considerably more complicated than described
    First of all these HB funded rents are very high and act as a direct subsidy to private landlords including apparently Labour councillors and MPs.
    Many of these landlords are providing sub-standard housing ,but even if they are not ,they should still not be receiving such subsidies.

    In the meantime many of these cuts were first proposed under Labour and some have been implemented
    The HB bill is simply unaffordable
    I am not misled by |Boris Johnson’s crocodile tears which are not so different from the crocodile tears of many on the Labour side.
    LIke many Tories and Daily Mail readers they actually want a large black economy to thrive and provide cheap labour while housing is subsidised.
    More importantly housing benefits are totally undermining a rational labour market because hardly anybody can affort such high rents

    On a rent of £500 a week rent the average breadwinner person or couple would have to earn over £80,000 to have the minimal disposable income to afford such costs. That is apart from other housing costs
    The ‘social cleansing’ which some on the Left are complaining of has already taken place
    MIddle-income earners groups have been driven out of London and south East.
    They are increasingly replaced by economically inactive residents with large families dependent on benefit.
    Such people who are – let me repeat- long-term economically inactive, have no need to live in areas of high housing stress. Some choose to live in central London and are effectively subsidised at the expense of economically active and hardworking households.How can that be social justice.?

    Defending this practice is sentimental but actually cannot be part of a Left-wing position. The Left is becoming detached from everyday reality.

    Interestingly Labour Housing Group has said nothing about all this. Partly because every one of its EC members is an owner-occupier but works in social housing and their sole mantra is to increase social housing and populate it with the economically inactive.

    That was one of the reasons Labour lost.
    Now get back to reality.

  • Battersea is not a Conservative target seat; they won it in May with a majority of almost six thousand.

  • I live in a Housing Association flat in an inner city area. This is a large and complex issue and one which has changed dramatically over the last 10 years. As an observer of the British obsession with home ownership I am in quite a good position to comment on this but all of the contributors make good valid points. However everybody that owns a home in the UK has to take some responsibility for the attitude this country has towards renting property ( Kirstie Allsop take note ) and the social stigma attached to this. In regards to social housing much is said of the very long waiting list but few people seem to understand that this list will never go down as it is being continuously topped up by people coming here from abroad. These figures are never published. The allocations system is totally unfair and I know many teachers who are having to live in expensive rented accommodation whilst my building contains unemployed non english speakers from outside the EU. A fairer system would be to allocate social housing to low paid key workers as the Peabody Trust now do. People who have a stake in society and contribute on a daily basis. No taxpayer would object to teachers and nurses being helped.

  • your party stole our council houses under the name of maggie you are doing the same . why should i invest my money in making the dump of a house the council rented to me when you can take it back at any time . i might as well just wreck it as all the previous tenants have done . then move on . dont look for a vote from me .

  • oh yes ,and of course Greenlagh had meetings with Boris and Merrick Cockell of Kensington and Chelsea…K&C then proceeded to attack every estate in North Kensington ,lately included into the Seat by the newly drawn Boundaries (used to be the Labour ward Regents Park which swathed round the corner into Westminster ,where Cameron’s crony girl Mrs.Octavius Black made big pitch ) aaaanyhoo ,then K&C brought Jonathan Bore (late of URBAN INITIATIVES….be afraid….be very afraid…..oooh er missus) down from Birmingham (where he was known for….. “social cleansing” ,to be head of planning .Look,make what you will.

  • Social housing was devolved to Wales on the 17th April 2010 so if thats right then this would be an English issue only….

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