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11.12.15

Ending lifetime social housing could risk local stability and Right to Buy

Preventing councils from offering secure tenancies for life and instead setting a fixed period limit of between two to five years will create uncertainty and instability on a local level, the Chartered Institute of Housing (CIH) has said.

MPs debated amendments to the Housing and Planning Bill yesterday, including limiting how long tenants can secure properties with no option for automatic renewals. Towards the end of the term, landlords would have to carry out a review to decide whether to grant a new tenancy of recover the site.

According to local government minister Marcus Jones, local authorities have been able to offer flexible tenancies – of a fixed term of no less than two years – since 2011, but only 8% of social housing in 2014-15 followed this model.

“At present, 236,000 social tenants are forced to live in overcrowded conditions due to the lack of suitably sized properties, while 380,000 households occupy social housing with two or more spare bedrooms. Under those circumstances, we believe that continuing to offer social tenancies on a lifetime basis is not an efficient use of scarce social housing,” he continued.

“The new clauses will significantly improve landlords’ ability to get the best use out of social housing by focusing it on those who need it most for as long as they need it. That will ensure that people who need long-term support are provided with more appropriate tenancies as their needs change over time and will support households to make the transition into home ownership where they can.”

But CIH’s policy and practice officer, David Pipe, said decisions about how fixed term tenancies are used should continue to be made locally to support flexibility. Landlords should also be allowed to choose the length of tenancies they offer, “ideally between two and 10 years” – or retain the power to offer lifetime tenancies where necessary.

“The amendment that has been brought forward includes only one set of circumstances in which new open-ended tenancies will definitely still be permissible – where an existing secure tenant is required to move, for example because their property is schedule for demolition,” Pipe added.

“However, the secretary of state will also have the power to set out further exceptions via regulations, which can be introduced at a later date. We think that individual landlords will be best placed to identify these exceptions and would encourage the government to draft their regulations to give as much local flexibility as possible.”

It is also imperative, he said, that landlords can determine the circumstances in which tenancies should and should not be renewed at the end of a fixed term – “as it would be increasingly difficult to create a single set of rules which would work in very different housing markets in different parts of the country”.

During the Commons debate, Jones said the reviews – carried out between six and nine months before the end of the fixed term – would allow landlords to offer tenants more suitable social housing or advise them about their options. Where the fixed term is terminated, the tenant would have the opportunity to challenge the decision, as well as given “sufficient time” to find alternative accommodation.

However, Roberta Blackman-Woods, Labour MP for City of Durham, argued that this was not a solution to the housing crisis, saying: “If there is a huge need for social rented housing, the way to deal with that is to build more social rented housing units, not to make life more difficult for those who already occupy social rented housing by kicking them out using a whole variety of mechanisms.”

Right to Buy and special circumstances

Labour’s Gareth Thomas MP questioned the impact this would have on children’s schooling stability or on houses adapted to support the needs of people with disabilities or special requirements.

But Jones insisted that the amendments were not created to automatically ask somebody living in special circumstances, or somebody whose situation has not changed significantly since the start of the tenancy, to move out. They are, instead, just about reviewing circumstances.

Labour’s Teresa Pearce MP questioned whether that would mean social tenants who have less than a three-year tenancy would not have the Right to Buy, meaning it could create a difference between the two types of social tenants and allow councils to terminate tenancies “as a way of not extending the Right to Buy to some tenants”.

“They must have had three years in social housing to be eligible. That is the same for flexible tenancies. Part of the purpose of the review at the end of the tenancy is to consider whether a person can exercise the Right to Buy if they are eligible to do so,” Jones answered.

“[You are] saying that the local authority moves them out of the property after two years, but at the end of the two-year fixed tenancy, the situation is reviewed and the people’s circumstances are taken into account. I cannot see that this policy will stop people being able to take up Right to Buy.”

(Top image c. Yui Molk, PA Images)

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