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From The Socialist newspaper, 15 March 2007

Market-driven 'social housing' threatens tenants

THE GOVERNMENT recently launched a new report into the future of social housing. New Labour Minister Ruth Kelly welcomed it as 'essential thinking' and congratulated the report's author Professor Hills on his acute analysis and deep commitment to social justice.

Holly Eaton

The Minister tried to reassure tenants who may worry about the review that she would do nothing to undermine their security of tenure. Far from being a threat, she claimed, the review was about making social housing "work better" for the four million households to whom it is vital.

So what is the review all about and why has it provoked so much controversy? Last summer, Professor John Hills, director of the Centre for the Analysis of Social Exclusion, was asked to look into social housing's role in the 21st century. In particular, he was asked what were the best ways that social housing could create 'mixed communities' and help people to get on in their lives.

Did Hills spend his time gathering the views and experiences of those who live in social housing? Did he speak to some of the 1.5 million people on waiting lists up and down the country desperate to be allocated a council or housing association property? No.

Hills was appointed by and was accountable to the government, not to any residents of social housing, current or future. His review was carried out pretty much behind closed doors. There was no public consultation or opportunity to feed into the review. Instead a few 'stakeholders' were hand-picked to meet Hills and express their views to him privately.

The report essentially looked at whether there is a case for having social housing at all within a market-based system for providing and allocating housing. After all, if housing is a commodity to be bought and sold, a means first and foremost of making profit, why would you provide someone with a stable home for life on a low rent?

Hills responds to those calling for an end to life-time tenure and for the introduction of market rents for council and housing association tenants. He speaks of social housing being 'flexible' to people's needs, about it acting as a springboard from which people can progress in other walks of life, getting a foot on the "ownership ladder".

He talks of social mobility and being able to move to find work. Behind all these words are hard-hitting proposals which signal a definite shift in the direction of ending life-time tenure and restricted rents.

Higher rents

THE RENT restrictions are to be lifted in the north first, where housing costs are generally lower than in the south; the ending of lifetime tenure will be targeted at young people going into social housing, giving them shorter-term tenancies. Ruth Kelly commented, as she launched the report, that rarely will a young person's housing problems be solved by a lifetime tenancy.

Hills does not ignore the deep inequalities of the market-driven system. He acknowledges that there are wide variations but asserts that it cannot be called a general housing crisis.

Yes, he says, there are those who are overcrowded and living in cramped conditions, there are those unable to buy or rent affordably, who are trapped in poverty due to high rents. However, there are also many who have done very nicely out of the current system.

On this, he is spot on! The astronomical profits made by those who trade in other people's homes, leaves a very definite picture of winners and losers.

Surely this is a reason in itself to build more homes for low-cost renting, rather than for home ownership. It is also good grounds to protect security of tenure in social housing and bring tenure in the private sector up to the same standard.

Stable and affordable housing options are needed by our young people. It is necessary to remove the profit motive and make housing publicly funded and publicly run. But none of these options are on the cards as long as this government stays in power.

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