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Welsh Tenants Federation sponsorship feature

Priority move-on: are we doing enough to improve social mobility among our existing stock?

Downsizing has become a major discussion point among tenants in Wales. Their anxieties have increased significantly following the UK government proposals to penalise tenants for under-occupying their home, while in the owner occupier sector government is encouraging people to live independently and under-occupied in the 25 million empty rooms that exist in that sector.

From April 2013, tenants in the registered social landlord sector who claim housing benefit will have no choice but to contribute 13% of the rental cost out of their welfare payments if they under-occupy a property by one bedroom and up to 23% if two bedrooms or more, despite the ‘bedroom standard’ allowing for plus one room for carers, relatives, fostering or returning family members or simply a developed disability. This will create significant hardship for an estimated 47,000 families who are already hitting multiple deprivation indicators such as fuel poverty and unemployment.

The issue of how we support and enable people to voluntarily ‘move-on’ (perhaps as a last resort) if they are unable to meet these additional costs, is therefore a popular discussion point within the tenants movement.

The Welsh Tenants Federation have argued for better support to exchange or transfer since 2007 and indeed since the spending review in 2009, for the Welsh Government to take the lead on developing compensation schemes for tenants who wish to free up their under-occupied homes for families who are desperate for that accommodation, thereby making more efficient use of the existing stock.

Compensation schemes are on offer, but they vary widely across Wales from £100 to £2,500 depending on the sector. Schemes can even vary within a single landlords stock and can be based on the condition of the property, size of the rooms being freed up and its location. Existing schemes lack consistency, fairness and transparency. They depend hugely on whether the property being vacated is indeed desirable to exchange. This can unfairly penalise tenants who live in poorly maintained housing on sink estates and trap them in unattractive lets for years.

Tenants have had a right to mutual exchange or transfer since the introduction of the 1984 Housing Act. The scheme was extended to include assured housing tenants in the Housing Act 1996 and under the tenants guarantee. However, the scheme is not actively encouraged widely by all landlords, this despite more than 23% of tenants stating that they would consider moving if a suitable property could be found and the costs of removal could be met.

60% of the 22,000 allocations made each year in the social housing sector are through points or banding systems which predominantly favour new applicants demonstrating hardship, including, increasingly, people who fall into non-priority need categories. The other 40% is divided equally between homeless applicants and transfers/exchanges. The 22,000 equates to just 8% of the total social housing stock of nearly a quarter of a million homes in Wales. The percentages of the total stock for transfer and exchange is little over 2% for each category. If we want to create better social mobility, then we have to enable people to find choices to trade horizontally and vertically across the markets. Only then will we have true flexibility and choice to find opportunities to improve our social mobility. This is ever more important given the pernicious reforms that are being planned for tenants.

The Welsh Tenants Federation has suggested that we should consider whether there should be a duty on social landlords to support and encourage tenants who are under-occupying their homes to move, even prioritising them as a priority need category above that of homelessness applicants and other allocation priorities. Thereby ensuring that loyal tenants who under-occupy get priority when smaller homes become available. This would have the benefit of ensuring that families stuck in unsuitable or overcrowded temporary accommodation can move-on more quickly to suitable sized accommodation that could be freed up. ‘Priority move-on’ could also increase the level of priority if the family moving on from their existing social housing can also demonstrate that the move-on would enhance their employability prospects thus meeting welfare conditions.

According to research published by the Intergenerational Foundation, there are 25 million empty rooms in the owner-occupied sector across the UK. Many elderly owner occupiers are capital rich while being cash poor. We believe that by adopting a whole system approach to resolving our housing issues that includes combing opportunities to support owner occupier conversions, addressing empty homes, an expansion of semi regulated social letting agencies to encourage the private rented sector in through revolving loan guarantees and promoting internet providers such as homeswap while providing more flexible, priority move-on for the social housing sector, we can begin to make better use of the existing stock across the range of markets.

Clearly we need a whole market solution to a whole market problem. To get to this goal, we need to get away from the controlling and restricting aspects of the existing system that can unintentionally trap people in their homes regardless of their tenure.

Steve Clarke, Managing Director Welsh Tenants Federation taken from the 2011 Welsh Tenants Federation report – Time for change: will priority move-on help improve social mobility in our stock?

You can contact Steve by emailing [email protected] or follow us on twitter: TenantsUnite

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