Swindon Council’s Housing Advisory Forum voted by 9 votes to 0, with 3 abstentions, in opposition to the government’s ‘pay to stay’ proposal. The HAF is a sub-committee of the Cabinet which has 5 Conservative Councillors, three Labour Councillors, and tenant members from Swindon Tenants Voice, TASH (Sheltered Housing) and Swindon Tenants Campaign Group. A special meeting was convened on the government’s ‘pay to stay’ consultation which proposes that ‘high earners’ who are Council tenants should pay up to double the rent that ‘social tenants’ (Council and Housing Associations) pay. 

The government is suggesting that ‘high earners’ should pay up to double the rent of other tenants. They are proposing a ‘threshold’ of either £60,000, £80,000 or £100,000 a year, combining “the two highest earning individuals”. It appears the government’s preferred option is £60,000. The consultation fails to explain the implications of the introduction of such a policy. Currently anybody not claiming Housing benefit is not subject to a means test. However, the introduction of a “threshold” would require the means-testing of all tenants, adding to the administrative burden and costs of local Councils.

The Council had sent out a consultation questionnaire which 202 people had returned. However, most of the HAF believed that the questionnaire was designed to get the answer which the government wanted. On a ‘common sense’ level the initial response of many people would be that those who earn more should pay more. There’s an irony in this government suggesting than people should pay a rent according to their means, whilst those of even greater means who have paid the 50% tax rate, have had a tax cut.

Since there was no information provided on the implications of ‘pay to stay’, either for the tenants or for the Council it was no surprise that a majority of respondents said Yes to the question “do you agree that people who earn higher wages should pay higher rents?” However, whilst 45% said Yes, 33% said No. When you consider the implications of the policy then the ‘common sense’ response is false. If they had been asked ‘are you in favour of means testing all tenants?’ the answers would have been completely different.

The tenant members of HAF (and one Councillor) expressed their opposition to ‘pay to stay’ because they were opposed to turning Council housing into a ‘means tested’ tenure and because they considered it to be a waste of time and resources. Given the tiny number of households which are liable to earn £60,000 or more a year (even the government reckons there could be as few as 12,000 out of 3,800,000 Council and Housing Association homes) it will probably cost more to administer than they could collect in increased rent. Moreover, as one tenant member pointed out, any tenant faced with the prospect of having to pay double their rent was likely to buy their house since it would be cheaper. As a consequence we would lose homes which we cannot afford to lose.

One of the consequences of introducing a threshold is that it would turn ‘social housing’ into a tenure of the poor, even more than it is currently. Whilst some might say £60,000 would give scope for people to earn a good amount, once a threshold was introduced then it could be changed easily. Moreover the ‘localism’ Act has already given local Councils scope to set their own threshold. One Council in London, for instance, has said that anybody earning more than £30,000 a year (not a big wage for London) will not be able to be a Council tenant.

If a resource is scarce, as ‘social housing’ is, tinkering with allocation policies is a poor substitute for tackling the scarcity by building new homes. Only with a major house building programme can the housing waiting list, in Swindon and nationally, be put into reverse rather than allowing it to continue to climb.

Since the HAF is an advisory body the ruling group in the Council can, of course, ignore its point of view. The Lead member responsible for housing was on holiday and there was only one Conservative Councillor present and even she abstained rather than voting against the proposal to oppose ‘pay to stay’. The view of the tenants was almost unanimously opposed to ‘pay to stay’ with only one abstention from a member of TASH.

The government’s consultation finishes on September 12th. Responses should be sent to paytostay@communities.gsi.gov.uk