A new year’s message from Swindon Tenants Campaign Group

So what’s ahead in 2014 on the housing front in Swindon? Firstly, around 7,500 individuals and families who are currently on Band C of the Council’s housing waiting list will be receiving a letter telling them that they will be taken off the list since the Council is closing down Band C. How do they justify doing this? The Lead Member responsible for housing said that most of the people on the list shouldn’t be on there, they could “probably” afford to buy a house. When challenged as to what evidence he had, he was forced to admit that he had none. Why would people who could afford to buy a house put their name down on the list when they know of the acute shortage of homes available?

The Housing director justified the closure of Band C by saying that it was “more honest” to tell these people that they had no chance of a Council home. Of course, neither argument addresses the key question, the need to build more Council housing. That’s the way to cut the waiting list rather than closing down Band C and pretending that these people have no housing need. Many of them might have acceptable accommodation but whether they can easily afford the very high private sector rents is another matter altogether. 

Way back before the last General Election Labour warned that the Tories would end secure tenancies for future tenants. Cameron dismissed this prediction as “a smear”. He said they would “protect social tenants’ rights”. A Party spokesperson said that they had “no policy to change the current or future tenants in social housing”. Yet within weeks of forming a government they reneged on this promise and gave Councils the right to end secure tenancies for future tenants. Swindon’s ruling group has decided to support this flagrant breach of a pre-election promise by introducing fixed term tenancies for future tenants. They ignored the opposition of all the tenant groups in Swindon. However,  Swindon Tenants Campaign Group will not give up on this issue. We will campaign for the overturn of this policy and the restoration of secure tenancies for all tenants.

Last year we learned of the impact of the government’s new ‘enhanced’ “right to buy” policy which increased the level of discount on the sale of Council homes. Not only does the government take the lion’s share of the receipts for these sales but it has imposed a Westminster dictat on how the receipts can be used. It has effectively introduced a ban on Councils charging Council rents for any new homes built with RTB receipts. To use the paltry £450,000 left from the sale of 40 homes a Council has to agree to find 70% of the cost of each new home from its own resources, or through borrowing, and charge “affordable rent” (up to 80% of private sector rent). The Council (and our MPs) should be challenging this central government imposition and demanding the right to use these receipts as we see fit.

The government’s policy of “affordable rent” is making the housing crisis worse. Statistics released last year have shown that where government (Homes and Communities Agency) grants have been used to build new homes, they have come at the cost of converting homes with ‘social rent’ into “affordable rent”. A policy of driving ‘social rent’ up towards market rents is short-sighted and counter-productive, since it will not only put tenants under increased financial pressure when living standards are declining, and much employment is precarious, but it will drive up the Housing Benefit bill.

Swindon Council will have to decide before April whether or not to apply for money from the Homes and Communities Agency for the second round of “affordable homes” grant. Swindon Tenants Campaign Group will be opposing any application because it will be at the cost of turning Council rent homes into “affordable rent”. We need more ‘social rent’ homes, not less.

This year will see a discussion on an update of the Council’s housing strategy. Swindon Tenants Campaign Group will be submitting a paper on the town’s housing crisis and how it can be tackled. At the heart of the debate is the crying need for a new Council house building programme. The coalition government’s housing policy is producing a slow decline in the number of available Council homes, locally, and nationally. The Council has the resources to begin an annual Council house building programme, even if on a smaller scale than we would wish. Unless it does this then available stock numbers will decline as a result of losing properties through RTB. We will lose more ‘social rent’ homes if they decide to go down the road of “affordable rent”.

Despite closing down Band C the depth of the housing crisis in the town cannot be disguised. It is reflected in the continued rise in the number of families on the priority Bands, A and B. It broke through the 7,000 barrier for the first time last year and continues to rise because of the growing gap between earnings and house prices, the prohibitive cost of private rental, and the growing shortage of ‘social rent’ homes.

If the Council recognises that we have a desperate need for more ‘social rent’ homes and decides to begin an annual Council house building programme, then we could at least stop the continued decline of our housing stock numbers. If they support “affordable rent” then the situation will simply get worse because we will have less genuinely affordable rent properties and not more.

In Swindon we have called on the Labour group to make a commitment to reintroducing secure tenancies for all tenants, should they take office. Nationally, Labour has committed to ending the ‘bedroom tax’ if elected to government. This was a welcome step after much prevarication. However, we want Labour to go further and break from the housing strategy of the Blair/Brown governments. We will be writing to the Party’s consultation on housing policy. We want a commitment to a new round of Council house building and the undoing of the policies introduced by the coalition government, including fixed term tenancies, means-testing of Council housing, and “affordable rent”.

Finally, our web site deserves a brief mention. We’ve just received an annual report from WordPress which shows that we had 52,000 views during 2013. That adds up to an average of 142 views a day, not bad for a local tenants’ group. It reached a high point of 1,046 views on one day at the height of the discussion on the ‘bedroom tax’. We have also had visitors visitors from 92 countries around the world. We were contacted by a German tenants publication (which has a print run of 20,000) asking us to write an article about our ballot victory in 2012, and the housing situation in Britain.

The highest number of comments on a single article was, not surprisingly, around the issue of the ‘bedroom tax’. More than 400 comments were made in response to one story about a tenant affected by the cut in her housing benefit. ‘The bedroom tax’ will reach it’s first anniversary in April. It’s visited misery upon many people, making life very difficult for them. Some have been able to call on the help of friends and family to get by, even ‘children’ being helped out by their parents in their ’80s. Unfortunately some people have been unable to cope with the pressure associated with going into debt and facing the threat of losing their home. We have heard terrible stories about suicides.

We still want to hear from people who are affected by the ‘bedroom tax’ and we want to keep an eye on any threats of eviction that tenants face, in order to support them. Last year we managed to raise nearly 2,300 signatures to a petition calling on the Council to call for the repeal of the ‘bedroom tax’ and to commit to not evicting tenants thrown into financial difficulties by it. The vote on the Council was lost by 2 votes. However, the response showed a high level of support from people not directly affected themselves. So long as the injustice meted out against tenants remains we will continue to press for repeal of this iniquitous piece of legislation.

Martin Wicks

Secretary, Swindon Tenants Campaign Group

January 1st 2014