Sidelining of tenants is part of a wider pattern

Whether you put it down to carelessness or couldn’t care less-ness, the inaction inside government inaction that has sparked open letter from A Voice for Tenants (AV4T) is symptomatic of a wider political paralysis.

As the group themselves point out, they are not representative of the eight million people living in social housing in England but they are the best we have until the government keeps the prime minister’s promise to bring tenants into the political process.

The letter is all the more effective for the contrast between its moderate language and its stark message that working behind the scenes has not produced results.

The only option left seems to be to embarrass the politicians into living up to what they have said over the last two years – accepting Inside Housing’s open invitation to a meeting seems the bare minimum they should do.

And there is a strikingly similar message in the Times this morning from Grenfell United, as it attacks ‘indifferent and incompetent’ ministers who took their ‘kindness as weakness’.

Two years of meetings have produced too little action, they say, with no progress on their call for a new model of housing regulator and thousands of people still living in ‘death traps’ with combustible cladding.

Grenfell and tenants were top of the agenda for the ministers in post at the time of the fire – the work of Alok Sharma and his civil servants is praised in the AVT letter – but have slipped down it as the months and now years have passed.

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Where next for renting after Section 21?

Blimey. If it plays out as billed, the government’s consultation on ending no-fault evictions and introducing open-ended tenancies for private renters represents the quickest change in housing policy that I can remember.

I say ‘if’ because this is still only a consultation, because ministers have form for claiming rather more in press releases than turns out to be the case when the detail is published and because Theresa May could be succeeded within weeks by a new, more right-wing prime minister who could dump the whole thing.

One more caveat is that I am only talking about England. The first minister of Wales, Mark Drakeford, pledged to end no-fault evictions on Saturday and so narrowly avoided the embarrassment of Welsh Labour lagging behind the English Tories on tenants’ rights.

Scotland has already abolished Section 33 (its version of 21) and introduced a new tenancy system in December 2017 that could become the model for the other UK nations.

In England, and taking it at face value, this announcement is a stunning victory for campaigners that takes May’s Conservatives to the left not just of where Ed Miliband was at the 2015 general election but also of what Jeremy Corbyn argued at the 2017 election. It was only later that year that the Labour leader committed to ending Section 21.

Last year the government consulted on its own plan for three-year tenancies but did not commit to making them mandatory – this was only one of three options alongside education and financial incentives for landlords.

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The shift to renter rights

Originally published on March 11 as a blog for Inside Housing. 

Can it really be less than five years since Labour’s plans for three-year tenancies in the private rented sector were attacked by the Conservatives as ‘Venezuelan-style socialism’?

And is it really less than three years since Royal Assent for a Housing and Planning Act that included provisions to abolish secure tenancies and make fixed terms mandatory for new council tenants?

A plan for that to apply to housing association tenants as well was only dropped because of concerns over their public-private status but many associations enthusiastically took up the voluntary option of fixed terms they were given in the 2011 Localism Act.

Until very recently it seemed that social housing was set to follow the private rented sector into a marketised world of flexibility and insecurity.

However, the pace of change on this issue in the last 12 months has been rapid and it is still accelerating.

The biggest move so far came on Friday when Labour followed up on its conference pledge to scrap no-fault evictions by announcing plans for indefinite private tenancies.

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10 things about 2018 – part one

Originally published as a column for Inside Housing on December 21.

It was the year of three housing ministers and two secretaries of states (so far), the year that the department went back to being a ministry and a new government agency promised to ‘disrupt’ the housing market.

It was also the year of the social housing green paper and the end of the borrowing cap, of Sir Oliver Letwin and Lord Porter and of some significant anniversaries.

Above all, it was the year after Grenfell and the year before Brexit. Here is the first of my two-part review of what I was writing about in 2018.

1. New names, new ministers

January had barely begun when the Department for Communities and Local Government became the Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government. The name harked back to the glory days when housing was ‘our first social service’ and housing secretary Sajid Javid became the first full member of the cabinet with housing in his title since 1970.

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The legacy of the 1988 Housing Act 30 years on

This week marks the 30th anniversary of Royal Assent for the Act that set the framework for the housing system as we have known it ever since – but as its influence wanes is it going into reverse?

The 1988 Housing Act led to lasting change in social and private rented housing. Not everything happened at once – some provisions were amended in later legislation and some took time to have an effect – but this was what set the basic ground rules for what followed.

In the social rented sector, it meant private finance, higher rents, stock transfer and housing associations replacing local authorities as the main providers. In the private rented sector, it meant the end of security of tenure and regulated rents and the arrival of assured shortholds and Section 21.

But it also created a system that was full of contradictions that are now only too clear. The stage was set for the revival of rentier landlordism but also the eventual decline of home ownership, the fall of municipal empires but the rise of mega housing associations and a belief that housing benefit could ‘take the strain’ of higher rents that always seemed unlikely and drained away with austerity.

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A benefit to society

News that 90% of social housing tenants feel that the media presents stereotypes of them is depressing but sadly not surprising.

As a report launched at the House of Commons today by the Benefit to Society campaign argues, the negative views are embedded in whole swathes of TVprogramming that links housing tenure to benefits status.

But it’s not just about poverty porn like Benefits Street and Council House Crackdown and tabloid headlines about scroungers and large families.

More thoughtful programmes like How to get a Council House can mine the same themes and generate the same hostility.

And even supposedly objective TV and broadsheet news coverage can strengthen the stereotypes by resorting to the lazy clichés of ‘sink’ and ‘crumbling’ estates and using stock pictures and idents of tower blocks and abandoned shopping trolleys.

So it is good to see that my union, the National Union of Journalists, is backing the Fair Press for Tenants guide aimed at journalists, PR people and documentary makers.

And the level of media interest in today’s launch and opinion poll also bodes well and is a chance to combat the stereotypes and change a few opinions.

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To ballot or not to ballot

Originally posted at Inside Housing on February 7.

Tenants get a vote if their landlord wants to transfer the ownership of their homes, so why not when their homes are going to be knocked down around them?

I’ve long believed that tenant ballots should be compulsory under major regeneration proposals even though the idea is not as simple as some people make out and is not going to fix current problems on its own.

Why? London mayor Sadiq Khan says he will require ballots on proposals where demolition is involved and which have Greater London Authority funding.

He has changed his mind since draft guidance last year argued that surveys and meetings should be held as proposals evolve ‘so that a “real time” assessment of the acceptability of what is being proposed is enabled’.

The draft said ballots and votes ‘can risk turning a complex set of issues that affects different people at different ways over many years into a simple “yes/no” decision at a single point in time’.

After a unanimous vote in favour of ballots by the London Assembly, the final version says that: ‘I want the good practice and principles in this guide to be applied on all estate regeneration schemes across London. Where demolition is involved, I intend to use my planning powers, and a new requirement for resident ballots where my funding is involved, to help ensure this is the case.’

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