‘Disciplining the poor?’: conditionality in social housing

September 25, 2014     Leave a Comment

In the first of a series of blogs highlighting our recently published briefing papers, Beth Watts and Suzanne Fitzpatrick explore the issues surrounding conditionality in social housing.

What is the role of social housing? Alongside other aims – to provide affordable accommodation of a decent standard to households on a low income (see here and here), and to create and maintain ‘mixed’ and ‘sustainable’ communities (see here and here) –  some would argue that social housing is increasingly serving the function of ‘disciplining the poor’ via the regulation of tenant behaviour (see Alex Marsh’s blog on this theme here). It is this aspect of social housing policy and practice that is the focus of the next in our series of briefing papers.

Housing management has long focused on the ‘core business’ of dealing with tenants who fail to pay their rent or engage in ‘anti-social behaviour’ (ASB). While an increased emphasis on tackling ASB has been evident both north and south of the border in recent years (see our Briefing Paper: Anti-Social Behaviour), rather different approaches are emerging in England and Scotland in other areas of ‘behaviour management’ within the social housing sector.

In England, some social landlords appear to be carving out a role for themselves in encouraging tenants to live healthier and more economically independent ways of life (see a recent report on this theme from HACT here). Such interventionist approaches to housing management, which some would view as ‘paternalistic’, aren’t of course new, being reminiscent of Octavia Hill’s approach to housing management in Victorian London. What is new, however, is the broader context in which these approaches are emerging, and the range of tools now available to English social landlords in pursuing wider behavioural objectives with respect to their tenants or prospective tenants.

First, the Localism Act 2011 has enabled local authorities in England to impose restrictions on who qualifies for access to social housing in their area, and many councils appear to be making robust use of these new powers to significantly restrict access to their waiting lists (see a recent Inside Housing article here). Reasons for disqualification from housing waiting lists reportedly include insufficient local connection (with some local authorities imposing long-term residence requirements), lack of engagement in employment, training, education or volunteering, a history of ASB, or rent arrears or other debt to the local authority (for instance, council tax arrears).

Second, the 2011 Act also introduced flexibilities enabling social landlords in England to offer fixed term tenancies (FTT), rather than secure or ‘lifetime’ tenancies. It would appear that a growing number of housing providers are now making use of these new flexibilities (see here), but it remains unclear the extent to which the renewal of FTTs will be linked to explicitly behavioural criteria. We could yet see these FTTs support the emergence of two ‘camps’ within English social housing, with one set of social landlords focussed on ‘core business’ and their ‘housing mission’,  and the other on a broader set of aims that include encouraging particular kinds of behaviour on the part of tenants.

In one well-publicised example of the latter camp, Yarlington Housing Group now require some new tenants to sign up to ‘Household Ambition Plans’, covering a wide range of activities associated with employment, health and community engagement; a move which has generated significant attention. You can read Yarlington’s response to accusations of paternalism and ‘regulating the poor’ here. Another example of this broad approach is United Communities – a community-based housing association in Bristol – whose ‘More Than’ (as in ‘More Than Just a Roof’) initiative seeks to redesign tenancies, tenant management and tenant services to “value and recognise tenants’ skills and assets and the positive contributions that we can make together to build resilience and confidence” (see here). United Communities emphasise shifting staff behaviours and approaches, in addition to shifting tenant behaviour. Other examples can be found here in the Chartered Institute for Housing’s briefing on FTTs.

These interventionist approaches to housing and tenant management are emerging in England in a context where the notion that social housing should offer a ‘tenancy for life’ has been robustly challenged by those who argue that long-term residence in social housing can trap people in worklessness and ‘welfare dependency’, and/or that social housing should provide a time-limited ‘welfare service’ that should be withdrawn when people’s circumstances improve. There appears to be little traction for these kinds of arguments in the Scottish social housing community, where there remains a strong presumption in favour of social housing providing a secure ‘home for life’. In the main stage of our study we will be able to explore the behavioural and other impacts of these divergent approaches north and south of the border via evidence gathered from a cohort of 60 social housing tenants from six cities across England and Scotland, whose experiences will be tracked over a two year period.  This Briefing Paper: Social Housing provides the policy background for our ongoing empirical work.

Beth Watts and Suzanne Fitzpatrick, September 2014

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