UK-wide, there are nearly 2 million people on council home waiting lists.
In Scotland, (in 2010-11) 55,227 households made homeless applications to their local council and local councils built about 583 dwellings.
(All of this data was got from the www.shelter.org.uk website, by the way.)
“It is shocking … homeless people are dying much younger than the general population. Life on the streets is harsh and the stress of being homeless is clearly taking its toll. This report paints a bleak picture of the consequences homelessness has on people’s health and wellbeing. Ultimately, it shows that homelessness is killing people.”
There are about 272,401 homes rented from housing associations and about 323,138 council homes – but on 31st March 2011 there were 7,667 council homes standing empty. (According to Scottish House Condition survey data, there are currently 87,000 empty homes across Scotland – so in theory enough to resolve the homeless problem and then some. But there’s a council housing estate standing empty just down the road from me, and the reason people were moved out from there was it was becoming uninhabitable.)
As of 31st March 2011, there were 156,200 people on waiting lists for council houses, and 38,800 more people on transfer lists because their council house or locality has become unsafe or inappropriate. According to the 2001 census, there are 29,299 second and holiday homes in Scotland, about 1.3 per cent of the total housing stock.
According to the Scottish House Condition Survey of 2009, about 71,000 households are overcrowded in Scotland, and 65% of those households (46,000) are families with children. And 5,800 children in Scotland are living in substandard “temporary” accommodation this Christmas, and will most likely still be there at Easter. In England, there’s 70,000 children in that situation.
Suitable accommodation is vital to a stable life that includes education, employment and healthy relationships. Young people are more vulnerable to poor health, involvement in crime and substance misuse, sexual exploitation, unemployment and dependency on benefits when they don’t have a safe place to live. Homeless families find themselves living transitory and uncertain lives. They never know when they will have to move, and basic essentials like a school place or doctor become major problems. Temporary accommodation offers children no stimulation or room to play, which can lead to depression or aggressive behaviour.
So what does the Westminster government consider to be the important issue about council houses and council tenants, this first morning of 2012?
Subletting, which is to be made illegal, and the possibility that some very wealthy people may still be living in council homes, never having taken advantage of the Right to Buy scheme or moved on.
“For too long this country has turned a blind eye on the multi-billion pound problem of housing tenancy fraud and abuse. This year the coalition is determined to end that scandal. Why should someone on a six-figure income enjoy a fantastically subsidised council rent, whilst those in real need languish on the waiting list? And why is it so easy to get away with sub-letting your council house at market rent and simply pocketing up to £1,000 a week at taxpayers’ expense?”
Any “crackdown” on people receiving a subsidised benefit to make absolutely really very sure no one’s getting it who doesn’t deserve to, ensures that all deserving and honest recipients will have their lives made a misery. Grant Shapps talks about people on a six-figure income living in a council house. Even assuming that £100K+ income is based on two adults both working and earning over £50K a year each, even assuming they have four children, the households with that kind of income are in the top 8% of the population. (I got this from the Institute of Fiscal Studies calculator.) There may be some people in that 8% who are occupying a council house and who have never thought of buying it – but this is plainly not a huge problem. I don’t know what Grant Shapps’ wife earns, but with just his Ministerial salary, their family has a higher income than around 96% of the population. Nice for him. Not exactly a situation where you can find much empathy for people who are scrambling to afford each month’s rent.
What will become a huge problem for people who don’t have that kind of income is that the government want local authorities to investigate everybody’s income. This will mean that having a council house becomes a means-tested benefit. Not just when you’re trying to get to be placed in one, when you absolutely do have to show evidence that you’re in need, but when you’ve been living there for years or decades. Any means-tested benefit is always more costly and more complex to administer than a universal benefit, and universal benefits are better for society.
We need more homes being built in the UK. Building council homes is a win-win-win – it provides employment, which is good for the economy, a win: it moves people from temporary accommodation or homeless accommodation into a proper home, which is good for them, a win: and it gives those people more chance of getting a job or a good education which is good long-term for the economy, a win.
Renting a council house and subletting it is not, at the moment, an offense. My guess is that it’s not because most of the time, the sublet is temporary or to the person who stands to inherit the council tenancy anyway – a council tenant who’s going to be living elsewhere for a year or so, a older council tenant who’s moving into sheltered accommodation and whose son or daughter is moving into their council house. There may be some unscrupulous private landlords getting in there, who are doing it as a business, and if so, they would be rightly cracked down on as part of a drive against rogue landlords.
But that’s not what the Westminster government proposes. Claiming that this sort of thing costs two billion a year – based on a recent analysis that asserts 3% of the UK’s council houses may be illegally occupied – this scheme is having £19M diverted to it and they promise local authorities that any money they “save” by cracking down on council tenants is money that can be spent on new housing. But turning council houses into a means-tested benefit won’t save money, it’ll make council housing stock more expensive and complicated to administer. This is just another way to make the lives of the worse-off of a misery, and divert effort from supporting tenants to investigating them.
Shelter in England is calling on the Government to raise standards of rented accommodation and to properly protect tenants from rogue landlords – if you live in England sign the petition here.
Ben Reeve-Lewis, a tenancy relations officer in an inner London borough, says that Shelter’s campaign is misdirected, blaming local authorities for not prosecuting when the problem is “we are so overwhelmed by the number of weekly complaints that we cannot possibly countenance any more than basic dispute resolution.” He writes:
If the TRO decides that a criminal route is the appropriate solution there will have to be days gathering evidence, writing statements, delivering injunctions, interviewing perpetrators and arranging temporary accommodation for the tenant. The matter might reach the magistrates court in perhaps 18 months, with luck. Perhaps over two years, if the landlord opts for trial by jury. Once in court, judges will often give paltry fines. I once took a landlord to court who threatened a woman and her three children with a gun. It took me two and half years to get it before a judge who fined him £400 and refused the council’s costs in the case.
Most private landlords are decent enough people: I used to agent for one, I used to be one. In both instances, this was a “spare flat” that would have been standing empty due to the person who owned it moving away for a year or two: not a big business, just a means of covering the mortgage. I’ve rented from private landlords until I moved into my own home, shared flats with co-tenants. But the lack of council housing means unscrupulous landlords setting out to make millions out of the taxpayer can rent out accommodaton to people on housing benefit and make a massive profit – this is actually noted an advantage in an advice site for landlords:
An advantage of taking on housing benefit applicants and being up to date with the whole process is that landlords are quite often able to receive more than the market rent that would be payable if they were to let the property privately.
The real problem is enforced local authority cuts, which mean that there aren’t enough resources to deal with the scale of the problem; a judicial system that often doesn’t take matters seriously; the government, for its refusal to regulate the private rented sector; and the police, who proclaim that landlord and tenant disputes are civil matters. In almost all cases I see where the tenant has called police to the incident the police have taken the landlord’s side. They often help the landlord to illegally evict the tenant.
You want to save billions, Mr Shapps? Build council houses. Invest some money in resources for local authorities to crack down on unscrupulous private landlords. Don’t make local authorities waste money on means-testing their council tenants.