29 February, 2008
The new housing minister, Caroline Flint made her mark on the sector in emphatic fashion earlier this month by calling for social residents to be compelled to seek employment as part of their tenancy or else face losing their homes.
In a speech made to the Fabian Society, Ms Flint explained that it was 'only right that we have higher expectations' of tenants. It would appear that these higher expectations could soon see new tenants signing 'commitment contracts' which would place an obligation upon them to look for work.
Such proposals would help to base the issue of social housing around a principle of 'something for something'; a policy which Ms Flint seems keen to drive home.
In the aftermath of the speech it is clear to see that this issue has divided commentators straight down the middle.
Many commentators have leapt to the defence of Ms Flint and voice the views that her proposals simply go back to the root of what social housing should be about. Many feel that the idea of social housing being a temporary safety net, something to protect a person from homelessness until they were back up on their feet has been forgotten in recent times. Tim Dwelly, editor of the Smith Institute report 'Rethinking Social Housing' commented that 'getting a subsidised social tenancy in 2008 is looking less and less like a hand-up and more and more like a hand-out.'
For many Ms Flint's speech simply reinforces the message of tenant empowerment – empowering people to earn their own living to shape their own lives – which has been a hot topic in the housing sector for a number of years.
Leslie Morphy, chief executive of Crisis has been quoted as saying 'Our experience at Crisis shows that encouragement and enablement – and not threats – are the way to help homeless and vulnerable people to build independent lives.'
In response, many people point out the disincentives offered by the benefit system which indirectly encourage people to remain dependant upon and reap the rewards from the Housing Sector. This has been blamed for trapping tenants in a no win situation. They can either remain on benefits and lack the empowerment of having their own job or seek employment and lose the security afforded by social housing for life.
And yet, if social housing is actively preventing people from making their own way in life to increase their families' prospects, then surely the system is broken and therefore in need of reform.
However the thought of tenants losing their homes if they fail to look for work has sparked fury among tenants and housing professionals alike. Although the question of whether it would mark, in Shelter's opinion, 'a return to the workhouse' may sound a touch melodramatic; many have accused Ms Flint of totally misunderstanding the links between social housing and worklessness.
In Ms Flint's own constituency, Don Valley, the residents are still reeling at the closure of the last coal mine in the area, which had been the major employer in a centre for heavy industry until the latter half of the twentieth century. Now, residents complain that too many local jobs are temporary contracts, while others are only secure as long as funding continues to arrive.
Although many tenants believe that Ms Flint is valid in some of her points, they seem to object to the apparent blanket stigmatisation directed at social tenants.
However, the same accusations have also been raised by those defending the Housing Ministers comments. Pointing the finger at a housing sector that is seen to be mollycoddling its tenants, if those closest to the housing sector feel that social tenants are incapable of looking for work, surely they too have a low, if not lower opinion of what constitutes a large proportion of the population.
Following Ms Flint's speech, several housing associations intend to prioritise worklessness as part of their agenda. The Riverside Group, in particular, is looking to invest extra funds into outreach work to tackle unemployment and many other associations are following suit.
This has raised concerns, however, as to what the knock-on effect would be for other community investment projects, Riverside spends £2 million a year on such programmes, addressing wide-ranging issues from youth development to anti-social behaviour and environmental improvement.
Other housing associations do not share the same drive as Riverside in relation to tackling worklessness. It should be pointed out that many associations already have extensive programmes in place aimed at tackling worklessness but are unwilling to put further emphasis on the issue to the detriment of the other work that they do.
Whether Miss Flint's speech marks a shift in priority towards addressing unemployment remains to be seen, however many associations may be left counting the cost if they choose to focus on this current issue. Associations may have to hope for extra government funding to provide any alternative to scaling back existing projects.
Regardless of what your thoughts are, and whether or not Ms Flint's proposals reach fruition or are quietly dropped, the speech has achieved one thing already. Ms Flint wished for the speech to spark a debate and a great debate she has surely delivered.