Social housing should give tenants broader choices

22 Feb 07
An acute shortage of social housing is reducing tenants' mobility and failing to offer them an incentive to find work, says a government-commissioned review.

23 February 2007

An acute shortage of social housing is reducing tenants' mobility and failing to offer them an incentive to find work, says a government-commissioned review.

While households that rent from councils and registered social landlords should retain security of tenure, they should be offered a wider range of choices, says Professor John Hills.

These might include regular reviews of their financial circumstances that could lead to them buying shares in their homes. But landlords should also seek to retain some higher-income tenants through quality management so that estates include a wider mix of people.

Hills, social policy professor at the London School of Economics, was invited to study the future of social housing eight months ago by Communities and Local Government Secretary Ruth Kelly. His review, Ends and means: the future roles of social housing in England, published on February 20, endorses government policy but says more must be done to reduce social polarisation.

In spite of the new homes built by RSLs, two-thirds of social housing still lies in areas built as council estates. Just 170,000 households were offered homes by councils or RSLs in 2005 compared with 250,000 per year in the 1990s.

This, says Hills, is partly because tenants find it difficult to move to different social housing if they find a job, and prefer to hold on to what is seen as a valuable asset – even if it means remaining unemployed.

With under half of working age tenants in paid work, his report calls on landlords to make it easier for tenants to move home. Landlords should also be encouraged to sell properties, or rent them out commercially, and use the proceeds to buy homes in other areas.

Speaking at the launch, Hills said it had never been his intention to set out a 'shopping list' or blueprint for reform. But it was vital to give tenants an opportunity to improve their livelihoods. 'We are not realising the full potential of the large resources that are being used to provide social housing,' he added.

Kelly told the launch that housing had been thought about in isolation for too long, but there was no need to go back to the drawing board. 'Approaches that bring housing, training and employment together should be the rule, rather than the exception,' she said.

David Butler, chief executive of the Chartered Institute of Housing, told PF that it would have been wrong for Hills to put forward a radical new agenda, but it was vital to recognise the different circumstances facing tenants and landlords nationwide. 'We are moving away from a situation where policy initiatives can be applied equally across the country,' he said.

Local Government Association chair Sandy Bruce-Lockhart said the system was at fault: 'Talk of time limits and means testing for social housing tenants would not be an issue if the government stuck to its guns and devolved greater powers over housing to local councils and local people.'

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