Housing Bill an attack on localism and local communities

Catherine McKinnell, MP for Newcastle North, has hit out at measures on council homes in the Government’s Housing and Planning Bill, describing them as an attack on both localism and local communities.

At present, local authorities can offer people long-term, secure council home tenancies – with the flexibility to end them for missing rent payments or anti-social behaviour, for example. This gives councils the freedom to manage tenancies in a way that best suits their area whilst supporting strong local communities. However, the Housing and Planning Bill, which received its Third Reading in the Commons yesterday (12th January), will force local authorities to offer most new council home tenants a tenancy of between just 2-5 years.  

Intervening during the Third Reading debate, Catherine said:

‘My hon. Friend is making a powerful case. She rightly mentions London, as do a number of colleagues, because it is an acute issue, but is she not concerned that the issue exists throughout the country and that the Government’s approach makes a sham of their promise to support localism, as they are riding roughshod over the ability of local councils to use discretion in this important area?’

Catherine went on to ask:

‘This issue will affect not just individual families, but entire communities. If families feel that they may have to move within a very short period, what incentive do they have to get involved in the local community, put down roots or build community ties that will be cut unnecessarily quickly?’ 

The Bill also includes a number of other damaging measures, including forcing councils to sell off ‘high value’ homes when they become vacant instead of moving new tenants into these properties from their waiting list – with the majority of the receipts from these sales handed to the Treasury, in order to fund the Government’s Right to Buy extension for Housing Association tenants.  

Crucially, Ministers are expected to make a determination of payments from local authorities each year based on an estimate of the market value of such homes likely to become vacant, with councils required to make a payment to meet this sum regardless of how many actually become unoccupied.  

A definition of ‘high value’ is not included in the Bill but – using regional thresholds previously suggested by the Government – housing charity Shelter has estimated that Newcastle could be hit by the forced sale of 82 council homes per year, with a value of around £12million. Newcastle City Council will have to hand most of the receipts from these sales to the Government, or pay a levy equivalent to their value each year.

In addition to tabling amendments removing both of these measures from the Bill, Labour also proposed a new clause yesterday placing a requirement on all private sector landlords to ensure their properties are ‘fit for human habitation’ throughout the course of a tenancy. This proposal was defeated by the Government by 312 votes to 219.

Catherine commented:

‘The Housing Bill demonstrates that the Government’s so-called commitment to localism is a complete sham. ​ 

‘This Bill is actually an attack on localism, taking away councils’ ability to manage tenancies in way that best suits their area – and an attack on local communities, with the insecurity and churn that can afflict the private rented sector being imposed on social housing too. 

‘People need certainty in their housing, and forcing people out of their homes within five years will have a really damaging effect on families and communities alike. 

‘I’m particularly concerned about the impact of forced council home sales. Why should those on waiting lists in Newcastle and our City Council pay the price of the Government’s Right to Buy extension?

‘And – given so many of the measures in this Bill will force more people into the private rented sector – it’s just staggering the Government is refusing to ensure they will be able to live in homes that are of a basic, decent standard. The majority of landlords are responsible, but far too many aren’t, and making it a requirement for homes to be fit for human habitation really shouldn’t be controversial in 21st century Britain.’