Roy Kennedy on the Conservative’s ongoing issues with council housing
As Peers continue the Report stage consideration of the Housing and Planning Bill, I find myself repeatedly asking the question: “What is the Tories problem with council housing?” For all the claims from government ministers of support for affordable housing, the proposals before us are very different.
We have had Ministers claim that council housing is subsidised by the taxpayer - something confirmed as incorrect in a response to a written Parliamentary Question that I immediately tabled. We have also had the diverting of funds to support a specific cohort of people who will benefit from the so called ‘Starter Homes’ policy to the exclusion of virtually all other programmes. Then today, we see debate on some of the most controversial provisions in the Bill and which right to the heart of the Conservative’s attack on council housing.
A couple of years ago, the then Coalition government started to make noises about high income earners living in council housing when they could afford to either buy or live in the private rented sector. This has now turned into a policy whereby any household living outside London with an annual earned income of £30,000 or in London on £40,000 is deemed to be ‘high earning’. The reality of course, is that these incomes levels before the deduction of tax and national insurance are not in any sense high. And the policy has moved to just become a device for the Treasury to collect additional money to spend on their priority programmes.
One of the most difficult things I have found while working on this Bill is reading emails from worried couples who find themselves a few thousand pounds above the threshold with no idea how they are going to pay the additional rent. Some tenants on shift work or those who receive bonuses run a real risk of being above and below the threshold at different times of the year. This is why Labour is spearheading the fight to create a package of measures that deal with the worst excesses of the policy. So in the Lords, we are seeking to amend the Bill to raise the threshold before any additional rent becomes payable, and introduce a taper to limit the amount in proportion to extra income.
Alongside this, Ministers are also trying to limit council housing tenancy agreements to two to five years. Something with no obvious knock on benefits that will create great uncertainty for many families, who find it hard enough to bring up their children without additional pressures being placed on them by government. Having grown up in a council property myself, I will always be grateful that I was able to live in a house that was safe, warm and dry, with a bedroom where I could do my school homework. But also no risk of my parents being forced by the council to move elsewhere, as long as the tenancy agreement was adhered to.
Today, Labour and others from across the Lords will seek to defend such housing by supporting amendments that stop the government in its tracks. In doing so, we hope they see sense and understand that this sector of our mixed housing tenure is essential to sustaining communities in both rural and urban areas.
Lord Roy Kennedy of Southwark is Shadow Housing Minister in the House of Lords. He tweets @LordRoyKennedy
Published 18th April 2016