Housing under threat by New Labour and the High Court

Firstly, Defend Council Housing says:

The Chartered Institute of Housing’s proposals to means test and time limit council ‘secure’ tenancies’ (‘Rethinking Housing’) are shocking but not exactly original.

Alan Walter, tenant chair of Defend Council Housing said today:

“This is yet another attempt to stigmatise council housing as housing of last resort just when we need pressure on Ministers to announce a massive investment programme to build a new generation of first class council housing providing the secure tenancies, low rents and an accountable landlord that the private market has so clearly failed to deliver.”

“With so many people facing insecurity today the last thing we need is the ‘great and the good’ of the housing world proposing to take away ‘secure’ tenancies which council tenants fought for and won after the recession of the late 1970s.”

“The solution to a shortage of defend, affordable, secure and accountable council housing isn’t to means test and time limit it but to build more! That would also have the benefit of opening up council housing allocation policies to the wide range of people who used to live on council estates re-establishing the mixed and sustainable communities the CIH and government say they want.”

The key argument and much of the language has been lifted from the Smith Institute’s ‘Rethinking Social Housing’ paper published in 2006.
This crudely argued that a ‘secure tenancy’ for life encourages ‘dependency’ and should be scrapped. The theme was eagerly taken up by then Secretary of State, Ruth Kelly who asked Professor John Hills to look at the ‘Role of Social Housing’. She and others clearly hoped that Hills would oblige and recommend means testing and time limited tenancies. To his credit he refused. Yvette Cooper when we met her made it clear she didn’t support this agenda but Caroline Flint chose to make her first speech as Housing Minister on ‘commitment contracts’.

The CIH’s latest contribution is clearly an attempt to rehabilitate this agenda despite several Ministers retiring bruised. Timing is deliberate because the ‘great and the good’ want to raise these proposals again in the Housing Reform Green Paper due next month

Their agenda is based on the assumptions that those in council housing have obligations (beyond paying the rent and treating your neighbours with respect) in addition to those in other forms of tenure, and that the job of “housing professionals” is to paternalistically “help” tenants through life (though not by building more council housing because that still isn’t yet “on message”).

Government is robbing council tenants (not subsidising us) to the tune of £1.8 billion a year – as the latest draft subsidy determination confirms – while over the last twenty years billions of pounds of public subsidy has been poured into RSLs and taxation has favoured homeowners and more recently buy to let landlords. The bank bailout is the biggest home ownership subsidy of all time.

Why should employment “help” be tenure specific and why is it appropriate for “housing” rather than health or education professionals to be given new powers to call people into interviews? When millions face insecurity and instability the last thing they need is a threat to their ‘secure’ tenancy.

It’s shocking that in the midst of the biggest economic crisis for a generation, in part triggered by a major failure of housing policy, housing’s professional body decides to address the worry 17 year old tenants who twenty years on become higher rate tax payers.

The principle that needs defending is that council housing should be a mainstream tenure of choice, available to all who want to rent as an alternative to the private market. Council tenants need and have the same right to a ‘home’ as everyone else – not just a temporary place to put their head down until they find something better. It’s ironic that those arguing for means testing and time limits also bang out the rhetoric about building ‘sustainable communities’. Their proposals directly stigmatise council housing as housing of last resort and, if successful, would make our estates ‘transient communities’.

The solution is to start a massive investment programme to improve existing and build a new generation of first class council homes. That would provide the much needed homes the market is incapable of providing and also open up housing allocation policies once again so that our estates return to being the mixed and sustainable communities they were before scarcity distorted them.

There’s clearly a wider neo-liberal agenda at work. Would CIH say people who can ‘afford’ the private market should pay for their health care or kids education? That, of course, would go against the fundamental principles underpinning the post war consensus that millions of people support. Better to start with council tenants who can be more easily stigmatised and some must think more easily bullied.

Many CIH members are unhappy with their professional association “doing a job” for Ministers. They might not all agree with DCH’s response but hopefully they will make sure that council tenants in their area know about the DCH conference on November 25 and receive the same practical and financial help given to empower tenants to attend other events.

And secondly, the Financial Times reports:

A landmark High Court ruling has paved the way for mortgage lenders to sell the homes of borrowers in arrears without seeking a court order, bypassing Gordon Brown’s efforts to make repossession a “last resort”.

The ruling, which the judge described as having “wide-ranging implications”, strongly reaffirms the statutory right of lenders under a 1925 law to sell a property independently after two mortgage payments are missed.

While the power is unlikely to be used by mainstream lenders, who customarily seek repossession orders from judges, lawyers and opposition politicians called on ministers to pass reforms urgently to prevent rogue lenders “threatening families with these powers”.

The judgment dismissed the human rights defence of the homeowners in arrears and backed the right of GMAC-RFC, a specialist subprime and buy-to-let lender that is part-owned by General Motors, to appoint receivers and auction the property.

The former homeowners, who had a buy-to-let mortgage, were then evicted for trespassing by the new owner, Horsham Properties. The sale circumvented the court process through which judges can give struggling borrowers more time to arrange repayments. There are no plans for appeal.

In his ruling, Mr Justice Briggs also suggests the borrowers lost their equity when they fell into arrears, although it is unclear whether they were entitled to the balance of the sale proceeds once the debt was cleared.

GMAC said it “frequently exercised” its power of sale with buy-to-let borrowers who breached contractual terms.

But it said “a receiver would not have been appointed” in the case of a residential home loan, even though the judgment confirmed the power of all mortgage lenders to do so.

Lawyers have responded with ”astonishment” and called for new laws as a “matter of urgency”.

John Gallagher, principal solicitor with Shelter, the housing charity, said the case “gives the green light” for lenders to sidestep courts with legal remedies “rooted in the 19th century and repugnant to most people’s sense of justice”.

“It is quite incredible in the 21st century that the law allows the lender to choose whether or not to take possession proceedings and that the borrower then becomes a trespasser in his or her own home,” he said.

Mr Brown promised repossessions would be a last resort after issuing judicial guidelines to help settle mortgage arrears ahead of court proceedings. But the limited powers of judges to protect borrowers are triggered only when the lender applies for a court order.

Vince Cable, Liberal Democrat Treasury spokesman, said the ruling was “ex-tremely alarming”. “It shows the mounting repossession problems will not be resolved simply by changing court rules since the laws are heavily tilted in favour of mortgage lenders.”

Mr Justice Briggs said the power to circumvent courts was “in the public interest” as it provided the essential security for mortgage lending at affordable rates.

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3 Responses to “Housing under threat by New Labour and the High Court”

  1. maria Says:

    There were two recessions according to the BBC. One in the mid-70s, one in the early 80s. But none in the late 70s. Unless 1980 and 1981 are “late 70s”.

  2. David Lindsay Says:

    To our lords and masters, there is no difference whatever between the respectable working class and the real-life version of the characters from Shameless.

    So council tenants are to lose security of tenure (which, with subsidised rent, is the whole point of council housing) so that a law-abiding, tax-paying plumber and his family can be evicted in favour of – and the law-abiding, tax-paying electrician and his family next door can be delighted by the addition of – some clan or commune of knife-wielding junkies on the game.

    After all, they are all the same.

    Aren’t they?

  3. charliemarks Says:

    This “solution” is obviously absurd. If you don’t try to or can’t better yourself – you lose your tenancy. If you do better yourself – you lose your tenancy. So taking away the secure tenancy doesn’t give an incentive either way. (I won’t get into how bureaucratic the whole process would be, and the fact that the great majority of people want to work – it’s just we’re at the mercy of employers wanting to take people on, etc.)

    At the end of the day, this would be about screwing council tenants and creating more customers for private landlords and the parasitic banks…


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