This is an email sent to Swindon Council Cabinet members in opposition to the Council’s proposal to introduce “fixed term tenancies” for new Council tenants and to means test Council housing.

Swindon Council Tenancy Strategy

Dear Cabinet member

I am writing to you on behalf of Swindon Tenants Campaign Group re the above. At your meeting this Wednesday you will discuss a Tenancy Strategy document which proposes to end ‘secure tenancy’ for new tenants and introduce fixed term tenancies of 5 years (for individuals or couples without children) and 10 years (for individuals or couples with children).

As you know we have written to you before explaining our opposition to ‘fixed term tenancies’ and the means testing of Council housing as a tenure. (“Secure tenancies should be maintained for existing and future tenants” ) We would like to point out some errors and omissions in the documentation you have received. Firstly it fails to record that

  • all tenant organisations in the town are opposed to fixed term tenancies and means tested housing;
  • the working party set up to examine the Tenancy Strategy voted unanimously against fixed term tenancies and means testing Council housing as a tenure;
  • the Housing Advisory Forum voted overwhelmingly to call on the Council to maintain ‘secure tenancies’ for existing and future tenancies.

It is surely remiss of the officers not to draw to the attention of Cabinet members this overwhelming weight of opinion expressed in the discussion that has taken place.

Secondly the “Diversity Impact Assessment”(CIA) document which was put to the Housing Advisory Forum has not been published in the Cabinet documents so Cabinet members will not have seen it. This is a very questionable method. There are three important points in it which will not be presented to the Cabinet.

There is a major error in the document where it says that half of those households on it have “no need” of housing. We have pointed out the inaccuracy of this statement on a number of occasions yet the term has been left in the document. In fact Band C households are termed to be “in low need”. That simply means that they have adequate housing, though whether or not they can afford the rent they are paying for it is another matter entirely. Saying they have “no need” is a crude attempt to downplay the scale of the housing crisis.

The DIA suggests that the Council officers are clearly not convinced that the supposed objective of”fixed term tenancies”, cutting the numbers on the waiting list, will be at all successful. It says: “There are so many households on the waiting list that the measures outlined may make little difference. For example, many on the waiting list do work, but on low salaries.” This poses the question if you are doubtful that it will work why do it? And why is this statement hidden from Cabinet members?

The DIA also says that the strategy will be reviewed after 12 months “to see what impact there has been on waiting list numbers”. Why is this not referred to in the Cabinet documents? What is the status of this statement in the DIA when the Cabinet does not have before it a decision to institute a review?

Without repeating at length what we have written previously I would add some brief points.

Secure tenancies’ give tenants real security of tenure. We know that so long as we pay the rent and behave in a civilised fashion, we cannot be evicted from our homes. This security means that most tenants treat these houses or flats as their home. They spend money, time and effort, on their upkeep. If they do not know whether they will be evicted at the end of a fixed term tenancy they will not treat them in the same way.

There is no consideration in the Cabinet document of the cost of introducing fixed term tenancies. The Cabinet document says that “resources will be required to manage the review process” but it makes no estimate of what this will be in the short or long term. Given that there are 500 tenancies (excluding sheltered housing) given out every year, within 10 years half of the tenants will have to be subject to review 6 months before the end of their tenancies. This will constitute a large burden of work.

Moreover there will be more movement of tenants. Even if they are granted a tenancy at the end of their fixed term, any change in the family make-up will mean that they have to move to a property with less bedrooms (if available) and more will be subject to the bedroom tax owing to the mismatch of ‘needs’ according to the ‘bedroom standard’ and the shortage of smaller properties. This will create more empty properties (voids) at the cost of lost rent.

According to the DIA the success of this strategy will be measured by the number of households on the waiting list, and changes in the length of the time it takes for households to access housing. It is unlikely to have much effect. Even if the overall numbers fall (which is highly questionable) the number of households on priority Bands A and B has broken through the 7,000 barrier for the first time and is continuing to rise. The only serious way to tackle the housing crisis, is, of course, to start building Council housing again to tackle the acute shortage of homes with genuinely affordable rent.

The Cabinet document says that people who can afford a mortgage will be forced out. However, the judgement as to whether they can afford a mortgage is not so straightforward. It will depend not only on their existing income, their family size, the level of debt they have and so on. Moreover, it is not so easy today for first time buyers to gain mortgages, especially as a result of the level of deposit required. It may well be that some of the tenants evicted for having an income which is ‘too high’ will be obliged to move into private rented accommodation where they could find themselves overnight having to pay double the rent of their Council home.

Finally, we would stress that the Council has the discretion over whether or not fixed term tenancies are introduced. Tenants feel very strongly about the ending of “secure tenancies”. Introducing insecurity of tenure is no way to tackle the housing crisis. What the Council is proposing is having the right to evict tenants who have done nothing wrong.

Martin Wicks, Secretary Swindon Tenants Campaign Group

22nd July 2013