Letter to Swindon Borough Councillors

(Download a PDF lettertocouncillorssept2012 )

Reject fixed term tenancies – Let’s maintain ‘secure tenancies’ for all tenants

Dear Councillor

As you may recall we wrote to you in July in relation to the possible introduction of ‘fixed term tenancies’ and the ‘pay to stay’ consultation, explaining why were are opposed to them (“Wemore Council Housing, not means tested housing ”). Since then the Council has begun the process of drawing up a ‘tenancy strategy’. One of the issues which this strategy will address is the question of the type of tenancy agreement which is offered to our tenants. The government has introduced the idea of ‘flexible tenancies’ which means limiting tenancies for a fixed period, towards the end of which a Council officer would have to decide whether to renew the tenancy for another fixed period or to end it.

Nobody should be under any doubt that the introduction of fixed term tenancies could mark the beginning of the end of the ‘secure tenancies’ which tenants have had since 1980. The ‘secure tenancy’ was introduced into a Bill by the Labour government in 1979 and enacted by the Conservative government the following year. Fixed term tenancies would not yet apply to existing tenants, but with an annual turnover of around 1,000 tenancies in Swindon, it would not take very long until a majority of tenants were on them, and the ‘secure tenants’ would gradually die out.

The introduction of fixed term tenancies would mean giving the Council the right to evict a tenant who has done nothing wrong. It would increase the power of Council officers over tenants. Make no mistake a tenant might be ‘asked’ to leave but they would have no choice in the matter. They would be forced to move to much more expensive private rented accommodation or to try for a mortgage, if they could get one. There is, of course, no guarantee that a Council’s assessment as to whether a tenant earned enough for a mortgage would be mirrored by a mortgage provider. In addition, one of the features of the current housing crisis is the preponderance of high downpayments for first-time buyers, which makes it impossible for many people to gain a mortgage.

Without repeating the arguments that we put in our last correspondence, we would like to reiterate that we want Swindon Council to reject the use of fixed term tenancies and to maintain ‘secure tenancies’ for all tenants, both existing and future ones. As we pointed out last time, local authorities are not obliged to introduce fixed term tenancies.

Since we last wrote it has become clear that the overwhelming tenant opinion is that we do not want ‘fixed term’ tenancies to be introduced. Whilst the Council is obviously not obliged to listen to our opinion you should be clear that if the Council proposes to introduce fixed term tenancies it willdo so against the wishes of all the local tenant organisations.

Swindon Tenants Campaign Group has opposed their introduction from the start of the government’s consultation.

Swindon Tenants Voice put in a submission to the government consultation expressing its opposition to fixed term tenancies.

The working group which was set up following a decision of the Housing Advisory Forum, to discuss a ‘tenancy strategy’, unanimously expressed its opposition to the introduction of fixed term tenancies. The working group is comprised of members of STCG, STV and TASH.

TASH recently voted against the ‘tenancy strategy’ changes such as ‘fixed term tenancies’, with not a single person expressing support for them.

The weight of opinion is clear. The Council cannot say in relation to this issue that it is obliged to introduce fixed term tenancies by dint of government policy. The government has given it the freedom to decide. Therefore, to introduce them in the face of this opposition, would give the clear message that consultation with its tenants was a mere formality, and that the ruling group of the Council would simply do what it wished regardless of the opinion of its tenants.

For STCG this decision would mark a qualitative change in tenants’ lives a significant deterioration in our rights. As secure tenants we know that so long as we pay the rent and do not behave in an unsocial way, we have a genuine security of tenure. It gives us stability and embeds us in our local communities. We do not have to worry about our lives being disrupted periodically by an enforced move, as many people in the private rented sector do. Nor, frankly, do we have to worry about the Council poking its nose into our business, and our personal finances.

Contrary to received opinion you do not have to own a home as an “asset” in order to treat it with respect and to improve it. Because they know they are going to live there for many years most Council tenants treat their properties as their home and invest time, effort and money into its upkeep and improvement. In contrast fixed term tenancies would tend to make tenants with an uncertain future reluctant to invest time and money in a property which they might have to leave at the end of their fixed term. It would also tend to make local communities more transient than settled.

As we said in our previous correspondence, fixed term tenancies would transform Council housing from a socially necessary tenure into a meanstested one, which it has never been. Only those tenants who receive housing benefit are subject to a means test.

The government has largely abandoned the term ‘secure tenancy’, using ‘lifetime tenancy’ instead. In fact our tenancy (after the one year introductory tenancy) is open-ended but it is not a ‘lifetime’ one regardless of circumstances and the conduct of tenants. If we don’t pay our rent or we behave in an antisocial fashion then we can be evicted.

If the Council were to introduce fixed term tenancies then it would have to set the criteria for determining whether to renew a tenancy or not. That would obviously involve means testing and setting an income level above which nobody could be given a tenancy. This would be an onerous and costly task for the Council to police incomes and would expand the power of the Council over tenants, with the power to make life-changing decisions against the wishes of tenants.

For these reasons we would therefore ask that the Council reject the use of fixed term tenancies, and concede to the overwhelming opinion of tenants who are vehemently opposed to their introduction. The Council has the power to maintain the ‘secure tenancy’ for all tenants, existing and future ones. This is what tenants clearly want. Let us maintain the freedom to get on with our lives without intrusive interference from Council officers.

Martin Wicks

for Swindon Tenants Campaign Group

September 23rd, 2012

PS. We would be pleased to receive feedback and would be happy to discuss these issues with you.