Social housing priorities for the new Government
Tuesday, 23rd May 2017
On the morning of 9 June 2017, we will be waking up, breathing a sigh of relief that (hopefully!) we will not be taking a trip to the polling station again for a few years. But there may also be a sense of trepidation for anyone involved in social housing in England. The last few years have been something of a rollercoaster, with several changes due to be made in the forthcoming months that have the ability to alter the fundamental nature of social housing. As such the direction of future travel will very much depend upon who ultimately gets the keys to Number 10.
So what would we want the next Government to do?
1. Build more social housing
Many of the changes affecting social housing introduced since 2010 actually require more, not less, social housing properties to be able to operate properly. One of the major problems with the spare room subsidy is that the tenants affected have been struggling to find smaller properties to move into. To achieve the flexibility that is inherent in the self-titled, (and soon to be expanded), flexible tenancy regime, you need to have smaller, (and possibly larger), properties for tenants to move between. All of the main political parties also pledge to try and reduce homelessness, which to be achievable requires an increase in better quality temporary accommodation and more longer term accommodation to be built.
The list goes on - more general needs housing, more affordable schemes, more assisted housing is required and even if new housing models are ultimately delivered there will continue to be a demand for social housing.
2. Clarify the right to buy
The Cameron-led Conservative party, (in accordance with a manifesto pledge made in 2010), gave housing association tenants the right to buy their own home What has come about since is uncertainty about everything from commencement dates to funding. Pilot schemes have been extended and what started life as an open-to-all ideal has become a voluntary scheme, leaving housing associations struggling to predict what their housing stock could look like in 5 years' time. There has to be clarity on this issue, for all concerned.
3. Tell us what to expect post Brexit
Housing officers up and down the country will, by now, be very familiar with human rights, equality and proportionality assessments. It is unlikely that any Government is going to remove these protections overnight, but what will happen to these European fundamentals in the years to come, once Brexit becomes a reality? We are unlikely to become a "rogue" state where human rights are ignored - but the devil is in the detail for lawyers. Just what will that detail be and who will be the final arbiter of those laws?
4. Invest in our Courts
Admittedly, the state of our Court system is unlikely to be given the same attention as the need to invest in the NHS, schools or housing but anyone who has any regular involvement with any courts will know that the Court system in England is struggling. This is increasing costs to Registered Providers every time a case is issued in terms of up front court fees, internal wasted time (in sorting out mistakes in Court administration) and in terms of increasing arrears as a result of delays in listing ,matters for trial. It also has a significant impact on communities in ASB cases - bringing a serious ASB matter to trial many months after a claim was issued is simply unacceptable for neighbours who have had to continue to live with problems. More, not less, Courts are needed with more staff and more Judges. Or in the alternative, why not resurrect the idea of specialist housing Courts?
5. Invest in legal aid
Again, this is unlikely to be a vote-winning headline, and from a lawyer who only acts for landlords, seeking to improve public funding for tenants may seem an odd thing to include in this wish-list. But the availability of better quality legal advice for tenants would benefit landlords in the long-term. Inadequate housing advice is unacceptable as vulnerable individuals who need assistance do not receive the help they need, (which can result in protracted Court hearings, last-minute appeals and warrant suspension applications). Cases that run smoothly through the Court system with a sensible and knowledgeable solicitor acting for a tenant can only be achieved if more money is put into the system. It is an investment that will pay off, in time.
It will be interesting to see in the months and years to come whether any of these wish list points come true. What is clear is that social housing and the day to day issues faced by Registered Providers cannot be overlooked.