Despite the opposition of all the tenant groups in Swindon and the Housing Advisory Forum (HAF), the Council is introducing ‘fixed term’ or ‘flexible’ tenancies for new tenants, starting some time in the autumn. (See Swindon Tenants Campaign Group response to the Council’s proposed changes to it’s Housing Allocations Policy ). Although existing tenants are unaffected, if ‘flexible tenancies’ are maintained over time this would eventually mean the end of ‘secure tenancies’. At the rate of 500 new tenants a year half of the tenant body would be on ‘flexible tenancies’ in 10 years.
The Council is proposing five year tenancies for single people or couples without children and ten years for those with children. A review will take place nine months before the end of the ‘fixed term’, to decide whether to offer a new tenancy or end it, forcing them to leave. Originally the Council was proposing an introductory tenancy of one year, something which has previously been applied to all new tenants. However, they have now proposed to introduce them only for tenants ‘at risk’. Apparently, for some reason, this included anybody under 25! Probably this was because they only receive the lower rate of Job Seekers Allowance, £54 a week. We opposed this on the grounds that every tenant or none should have an introductory tenancy. If it was left to the discretion of officers then there is a danger of injustice based on subjective assessments. The HAF passed a resolution calling for introductory tenancies for all tenants on ‘flexible tenancies’. We await to see whether the Lead Member will agree or not.
One of the criteria for determining whether or not a tenant on a ‘fixed term’ will have their tenancy renewed is an ‘earnings threshold’. If you earn ‘enough’ to afford a mortgage or private rent, acccording to the calculations of the Council, then an applicant to the housing waiting list will not be able to go on it. In the case of a tenant on a fixed term tenancy, they will be forced out if their earnings go above the ‘threshold’ for the type of property they have. Yet the draft tenancy agreement presented to the HAF did not even mention that there was an ‘earnings threshold’. If such a criteria is to be applied then the tenant should know about it, and know what the figure is.
‘Right to Buy’
One of the reasons we opposed the introduction of these tenancies is that any tenant threatened with being forced out will, if they can afford a mortgage, take up the ‘right to buy’ rather than moving into the private rented sector (PRS), where the rent could be up to double their Council rent, or try for a mortgage on a home which will be cost more than a Council one. In other words ‘flexible tenancies’ will probably lead to an increase in the annual loss of Council stock through ‘right to buy’. There is currently a five year qualification period for RTB, but the government is cutting this to 3 years so that even those tenants on a five year tenancy will in future be able to take up RTB.
Given the fact that the Council had already decided to introduce these tenancies the best we could do was to try and take out the worst aspects of the draft tenancy agreement as presented to us. For instance, one of the clauses for ending a tenancy during the fixed term read:
“Any other matters the Council considers reasonable and proportionate.”
This would have given them carte blanche to evict a tenant fo any reason they deemed “reasonable and proportionate”. Thankfully the Lead Member agreed to our proposal to delete this clause.
Likewise we called for the deletion of a clause which would provide for an unspecified “Additional tenancy clause.”
Overall the agreement as drafted was bureaucratic and draconian. It read like a list of ‘don’t do’s’ placed in front of naughty children. It included “changes without consultation” of rent and service charges. We have opposed this. There is an annual rent uprating which is consulted. Changes without consultation are completely unacceptable. This is important, since, although the Council ignored our opinion for the 2014-15 rent increase, they did accede to our proposal the previous year to keep the increase down to the level of inflation.
“One dog, one cat”
One ludicrous bureaucratic proposal was the introduction of what we will call the “one dog, one cat rule”. Is this the Swindon equivalent of the Chinese one child rule? It is unenforcable, the ultimate bureaucratic stupidity. Would the Council do inspections to see how many pets are present? Is May Bloggs, 59, going to be evicted for having two cats? Or forced to put one to sleep? You can imagine the article in the Swindon Advertiser: “tenant threatened with eviction for the crime of having two cats”! Obviously tenants are responsible for any pets and nuisance they might cause, but a prescription like this is unecessary and open to ridicule.
‘Downsizing’…again and again
One of the most pernicious aspects of ‘flexible tenancies’ is that it means that even if a tenant/s has their tenancy renewed at the end of the ‘fixed term’, if their family composition changes they will be forced to ‘downsize’ to a smaller property. So the criteria applied to existing working age tenants under the ‘bedroom tax’, if they are in receipt of housing benefit, will be extended to all new tenants whether or not they receive housing benefit. Potentially this means that a family will be faced with multiple moves, whether they want to or not, as their composition changes. This is not cost free, neither for the tenant nor the Council. Moving to a smaller property usually means that there is not room for all your belongings and new furniture may be necessary. Enforced moves will also produce less settled communities.
The more moves that take place the more ‘voids’ (empty properties) and the greater the loss of rent as a result of the need to carry out work on them. Yet the Council has not even made an assessment of the potential cost of this policy.
One of the arguments in favour of ‘fixed term’ tenancies is that nobody should be given ‘a tenancy for life’. The term serves a propaganda purpose. ‘Secure’ tenancies are not necessarily lifelong. They are more accurately open-ended tenancies. You can lose one if you don’t pay your rent or behave in an anti-social fashion. ‘Secure tenancies give tenants real security. We know that if we pay the rent and behave in a civilised fashion we have real security. We cannot be forced out of our homes as in the private sector. This encourages tenants to look after their property. Generally they spend time, energy and money on their upkeep. People who do not know whether they will have a ‘fixed term’ tenancy renewed are not going to invest time and effort in the upkeep of a place when they have an uncertain future.
Equal treatment for all tenants
There is no self-interest in the opposition of tenant groups to these new tenancies, since existing tenants are unaffected by them. Yet we do not see why new tenants should have worse conditions than we do. Introducing these ‘flexible’ tenancies will not resolve the fundamental problem, the shortage of Council housing in the face of ever increasing numbers on the waiting list. ‘Fixed term’ tenancies will tend towards transient rather than settled communities, as tenants are forced to move from one place to another, as the usual life-cycle operates, with children leaving home.
Behind the proposal is the idea that Council housing is a form of social welfare which should be means-tested. As ex-Housing Minister Grant Shapps explained, the coalition believes that it is for “when it is needed and for as long as it’s needed”. Yet Council housing was never conceived in this way. It was necessary because ‘the market’ does not produce homes on the basis of social need. Private builders produce homes as commodities. As with all commodities only those who can afford (to buy or rent) can have them. The gulf between house prices and earnings, historically very high, makes buying a house impossible for many people, especially the young. The introduction of more rigorous criteria for granting mortgages, as a result of the Mortgage Market Review, will make it more difficult to get a mortgage.
That’s why instead of turning Coucil Housing into a means-tested tenure only a new Council house building programme can address the acute shortage of genuinely affordable housing for rent for those on the waiting list.
Swindon Council has agreed to review the new Housing Allocations policy after a year. We will press for an end to ‘flexible’ tenancies and the reinstatement of secure tenancies for all tenants. We have called on Labour nationally to commit to ending these tenancies (see Lyons Review submission) and would expect Labour locally to reinstate ‘secure’ tenancies should they come to power locally.
A return to ‘secure’ tenancies under the current political administration in Swindon is unlikely. However, we shall continue to press for a housing policy which does not police tenants and ‘spare’ rooms, but recognises that the shortage can only be tackled by new building and increasing the size of the available stock.
Martin Wicks, June 17th
Proposed Earnings Threshold