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The urgent need for more social housing

Submitted by on 23 Nov 2010 – 13:58

By James Murray, Islington Council’s Executive Member for Housing

The Government’s plans for social housing reveal just how out of touch it is with the reality on the ground concerning the needs of social housing tenants.

On one level, they agree with Labour – that there’s not enough social housing to meet the need for it. But whereas Labour’s response is to protect the existing stock and build more, the government’s response is very different.

Since the election, the government has said that if you don’t get a job, your benefits will get cut and you risk losing your home. But conversely if you do get a job, and earn a bit more, you may lose your tenancy, too. And if your children move out and you under-occupy, that’s another reason to end your tenancy.

It’s all about getting people out. Presumably they think this is a smart way to address the shortage of affordable housing – but it also reveals the Conservatives’ underlying dislike of security of tenure and a view of social housing as a temporary tenure.

This is a view that we reject, particularly in inner-London boroughs like Islington. Here, social homes with secure tenancies for families on low and modest incomes play a vital role in having a stable and mixed community.

High property costs in Islington mean that owner occupation is permanently out of reach for most of our social tenants. The private-rented sector is also expensive and provides no long-term security. Social housing is not simply a safety net – it is the only way to provide stability to many in our area.

Because the government seems not to appreciate this, their responses to the shortage of affordable housing all focus on getting people out. But their plans not only undermine the fundamentals of social housing, they are also unworkable and short-sighted.

Start with the government’s plan that if you’re on Job Seekers’ Allowance for 12 months or longer, your housing benefit gets cut by 10%. On current figures, this would likely affect around 1,300 households in Islington.

Being unable to meet rent payments, many of these 1,300 households would presumably then face eviction from their landlord – most likely the council or a housing association.

There’s the obvious point that taking away someone’s home is hardly going to make it easier for them to get a job. And would an evicted household be classed as “voluntarily” homeless, and therefore not be re-housed by the council?

Then there’s the plan that if you do get a job and earn a bit more, you may lose your tenancy when your means are reassessed. Again, there’s the very obvious point that this will surely discourage some people from taking jobs.

In Islington, we currently employ three under-occupation officers who help people to move to smaller properties that suit their needs as they get older. Although there are limits on what they can do, we help people move when they want to by helping them find a place, physically move there, decorate it, and so on.

This is an effective and sensitive way to address under-occupation and by implication help relieve overcrowding. Yet the government grant that funds these three officers is being cut next year.

Thanks to investment under the last government, the decency of our social housing has been transformed. But we desperately need investment in new homes in Islington and elsewhere.

There’s not enough social housing to meet need for it. We must oppose the government’s attack on tenants’ security and focus on the only long-term and effective response to the housing crisis: build more affordable housing now.