Moving to a new model for social housing

As a relatively new member of HPUK, it has been interesting to compare approaches to social housing from across the globe. In America, Australia and Canada social housing is seen as a temporary intervention and is not developed at the scale it is here. The financing of social housing is on a small philanthropic scale. There are complex community investment models that fund initiatives on a scheme by scheme basis. In America and Canada in particular it appears that it is anathema that the state should provide. People are expected to meet their needs in the market and ‘charity’ provides a temporary safety net for the poorest.

In recent years we have seen government policy in the UK moving closer to the American, Canadian and Australian models. The Housing and Planning Act 2016 has brought into question whether social housing tenancies should be given for life. It introduces fixed term tenancies and ‘earn more, pay more’ policies for council (public) housing. With the acute shortage of affordable housing in London these policies are worth considering. In the areas that Gateway operates, there are not enough homes for everyone and acute levels of overcrowding. So we are open to ideas on how we can make best use of the limited housing stock.

We do not currently have a mechanism for tracking tenants’ incomes as their work status changes. The Housing and Planning Act will enable HM Revenue & Customs to disclose this information but that will not be available any time soon.

The difficulty of obtaining household income could be overcome by making it a requirement to disclose this information at the end of a fixed term review. While no national guidance has been issued on tenancy renewal, the government has indicated that income, employment status, under-occupancy and behaviour could all be taken into account.

But, the early adopters of fixed term tenancies have not yet demonstrated that this policy creates any churn in social housing. Evidence from New South Wales in Australia indicates that in practice almost all fixed term tenancies are renewed[1]. The restrictions on access to social housing is such that the majority of tenants will be families with children, or people who are older, disabled, with mental of physical ill-health or vulnerable for some other reason. We would need to be satisfied that diminishing their sense of security, stability, and belonging is out-weighed by the benefits these policies will offer.

At Gateway 1 in 3 of the tenants in our general needs housing stock are over 60. Under-occupation is more prevalent amongst this group. But the stress of introducing fixed term tenancies suggests it may be better to consider if there is alternative policy to achieve the desired result.

In the past 2 years we have been undertaking a programme of improvement, remodelling and redevelopment of our ‘older persons’ housing schemes. Our objective is to create a pull factor by creating aspirational places and spaces where older people will want to live. Our next step is to incentivise older tenants who are under-occupying general needs rented accommodation to move. There may then be an opportunity to reset the terms on which we allocate new tenancies.

There are some vulnerable people who will always need the housing and support that we offer. Families should feel secure that their tenancies will be renewed as long as they meet the criteria. But as tenants grow older and the nest becomes empty, it would be great for people to feel they are not being pushed into a place to die, but an exciting and vibrant place to live. So it is wonderful to see so many housing associations offering great housing design for older people. Particularly as I am heading at great speed in that direction myself!


Sheron Carter

Gateway Housing Association 


[1] Research undertaken by Fitzpatrick and Pawson, (2013)