Monday, 22 November 2010

The Council House Debate

The plans to offer fixed-term tenancies for council houses are coming into force as from today. This will ensure, as Grant Shapps has just so eloquently orated on Radio 2, that families who no longer need council housing can be moved to make way for those who do. When put in those simple terms it seems a fair decision, but that masks several uncomfortable truths about the situation.

Firstly, as several of Jeremy Vine's listeners pointed out, it runs the risk of creating slum areas. People are moved into a council house and know that they may very well be asked to leave in a few years: what is the point in them taking any pride in their 'home' at all? It won't be a home in the true sense of the word; more like a temporary lay-by until people are able to move on. What you'll end up with are a collective of transient families moving in and then moving out, and then you have the staples of society who are simply unable to move. These proposals leave them residing in slum areas where there is no notion of community or pride.

The idea that people should relinquish council houses to those in need are good in theory. For example, who would deny the right of a family who have suffered from the recession a short-term haven in the form of a council tenancy? And I'm not denying that living off the state has become a persistent problem in our society. Experience has taught certain groups that if they want an easy life they can claim benefits, have children and get a council house. Some of the measures the Coalition are bringing in aim to attack those groups (though, personally, I think it's a mindset rooted deeper than the Government can probe) but that doesn't combat the current shortage of council properties.

Should someone have a 'home for life' subsidised by the state? Well, the arbitrary figures the Government may employ for deciding the threshold could suggest otherwise. If someone lives in a council house close to a city centre, for instance, then the chances are they will be priced out of either buying a property nearby or privately renting. Their financial circumstances may have changed but all this does is separate them from the area they've grown accustomed to and can require the upheaval of children from school and the like.

As with most Coalition decisions, this one demonstrates a blatant disregard for the individual. Let's take my grandmother as an example. She moved into her council house on Eastmoor Estate in Wakefield when my mum was nine months old, having put herself and her husband on the waiting list as soon as she found out she was pregnant. The result was a two-bedroomed house with a mid-sized rear garden and a pit at the bottom of the street. Over the years my grandfather made various improvements to the garden and they made it into a home. When she married my mum moved out and in 1986 my grandfather died. The house had suddenly become too big for my grandmother judging by the Coalition guidelines but she could she be expected to move into a small flat, move away from the house where she'd spent her marriage? She lived there for a further twenty years until her health deteriorated and she moved into sheltered accommodation. I firmly think that if she had been forced to move earlier her health would've suffered and the community she'd built on that estate would've been shattered.

There needs to be a long-term solution to the shortage of council housing but forcing people to move when they aren't ready or able is just plain cruel. Why not expand the number of council houses on the books, considering the number of empty properties lying around? However, this would be against the Tory ideology, wouldn't it? I wonder if Labour have any suggestions.

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