Housing ambition and disciplining the poor Alex Marsh School for Policy Studies The University of Bristol

Bristol, BS8 1TZ, United Kingdom e: alex.marsh@bristol.ac.uk (28/04/13)



Our welfare system is a soft touch, right? If you relied upon the mass media and mainstream political discourse for your information then you’d be forgiven for thinking that taxpayer-funded bounty was being handed out to anyone who cared to ask. And that, apparently, it would most likely be illegal immigrants, or possibly Bulgarians, doing the asking. What’s more, there is a huge queue of undesirables just waiting to step on to our shores and immediately take advantage of an offer of high quality social housing at a remarkably low rent. And this offer is designed specifically to do down the locals by sending them to the back of the housing queue. Not only that, but once these undesirables are ensconced in their taxpayer-subsidized home they can abuse the property, their neighbours and the neighbourhood as much as they like without fear of reprisals. Of course this is utter nonsense. The only way it can have such a hold upon sections of the popular imagination is that few people have much grasp of how these systems actually work. Yet, however wrong-headed this view may be, it is powerful. As a characterisation of housing policy it is a long way from reality, for all sorts of reasons. In particular, any focus on irresponsible and anti-social tenants who need to get a grip and be punished for bad behaviour is a little odd, because it is so far behind the times.


Instead. There are landlords who are awarding star ratings to their tenants according to their assessment of how responsible a tenant is. The responsibilization of the tenant is well under way. In particular. Obliged to take responsibility Since the 1990s a drive to rebalance the relationship between landlord and tenants has been central to the agenda. introductory tenancies and tenancy demotions. Whichever focus is adopted. under welfare reform the Government will no longer allow the housing benefit that covers the rent to be paid direct to landlords. 3. depending on whether local preference is for the carrot or the stick. It’s a decade and a half since Irwell Valley launched their Gold Service to encourage and reward tenants who behave responsibly. underlining the responsibilities of the tenant has been a central concern. Far from a social housing tenancy coming with no strings attached. That type of approach attracted a lot more attention as choice-based lettings schemes rolled out across the country following the Housing Green Paper published back in 2000.2. all tenants – except 2 . We’re already well into the era of anti-social behaviour orders and acceptable behaviour contracts. And there are landlords who are writing expectations of participation in community activities into their tenancy agreements. improved behaviour and clearing the rent account were the routes to redemption and a greater chance of securing a new home. Initially inspired by Blairite communitarianism. Quite what happens if such participation is not forthcoming is not entirely clear. Many landlords use a good tenancy record to give an applicant greater bidding power or a poor tenancy record to move an applicant closer to the back of the queue. But the pressures for landlords’ policy and practice to move further in this direction are undoubtedly increasing as a result of current Westminster policy agendas. the aim has been to place greater weight on the responsibilities that come along with the right to occupy a property. The urgent need for more of the same So there is already plenty happening.

will be given the money and expected to pay their own rent.those with evidenced vulnerabilities . social landlords are therefore likely to perceive that they have a strong financial incentive to move as many tenants out of the clutches of an increasingly straitened benefit system and instil in as many tenants as possible the discipline of making sure paying the rent is the number one priority. Some of it is going to be about poor people having to make difficult decisions about the allocation of meagre resources. As a consequence of this change. this is part of a responsiblizing agenda.to envisage some landlords being tipped over the edge. The interesting question is how far such incentives will translate into policy and what form that policy might take. without the tenants necessarily having a choice in the matter. Perhaps it is time for landlords to be thinking more ambitiously? 3 . a wise landlord might anticipate that constraints on housing allowances are going to tighten over time. But so far this discussion has largely been about the management of a tenancy and the prompt payment of rent. Some of the problem created by ending direct payment will be a product of poor money management skills on the part of tenants. and deciding that settling the rent account is not the most pressing demand they face this week. Bad debt provisions are likely to increase significantly. In addition. landlords are anticipating substantial increases in rent arrears and a need to spend considerable sums chasing bad debts. Again. It is perfectly possible – indeed plausible . will most likely place some social housing organisations in an extremely fragile position financially. while conditionality under Universal Credit – if it arrives – is going to place an increased premium upon getting tenants into work. Some of it is going to be about banks taking the money from tenants’ current accounts to cover other debts. combined with the introduction of a benefit cap and changes to underoccupancy rules. The move away from direct payments. Leaving aside any broader benefits to tenants and the community.

or enhancing skills in a way that assists the tenant in looking for work. The housing association’s statement to prospective tenants is clear: We will look at the progress you have made with your HAP when we consider the renewal of your tenancy at the end of the seven-year fixed period. under the previous tenancy regime the landlord either had a fixed period to determine whether a tenant was responsible – under an introductory tenancy – or there was the option of attempting to discipline behaviour through antisocial behaviour provisions. reported in the Independent on Friday. A new disciplinary tool The arrival of fixed-term tenancies under the Localism Act 2011 appears to have given this sort of agenda renewed momentum. The proposal is to use meeting the objectives in the ambition plan as a factor in deciding whether or not to offer another fixed-term tenancy. Broadly speaking. accompanied by formal legal proceeding to evict if that failed. strictly speaking. A new approach Into this mix we now have the moves by Yarlington Housing Group. Attempting to meet them will have consequences. count as an eviction. 5. However. at first sight that seems like a little bit of semantic juggling. Yarlington are expecting tenants to sign Household Ambition Plans (HAPs) when they sign up for a seven-year fixed-term tenancy. The matters that could legitimately be invoked to terminate a tenancy did not encompass insufficient exertion at keep-fit class or failing to eat your five a day.4. keeping fit. The housing association is quoted in the Independent as further stating that no one would be evicted if they did not fulfil their ambition plan. These are not just idle ambitions to be articulated. 4 . Such plans could cover giving up smoking. I would have thought that not renewing a fixed-term tenancy as a consequence of non-fulfilment of the plan would not.

It may be that for certain households in certain locations there is only one social landlord offering suitable properties. as long as they are lawful. audited and managed. At one level this seems fair enough. And it will be intriguing to see whether refusal to renew tenancies on the grounds of a failure of ambition will be open to any sort of legal challenge. are assessed.Fixed-term tenancies change the nature of the game in the landlords’ favour. in practice. It will be interesting to see quite how achievement of some of the more nebulous goals. they will be advised to bid for homes offered by other housing providers who do not have a similar scheme. Presumably there will be suitably specified thresholds and targets for the achievement of household ambitions. It has the latitude to specify any requirements it sees fit upon those receiving its services. This is. The organisation has its own mission and values. available locally. around health and well-being for example. But it rather begs the question of how much choice is. They open up the possibility of setting time-limited plans through which the perfection of the tenant and their family can be pursued. So subscribing to the perfectability agenda may not be a choice. There are broader arguments at the moment within the social housing world about the inefficiencies of a fragmented sector and the advantages of mergers and rationalisation of stock ownership within a locality. You don’t have to if you don’t want to Yarlington suggested that if people are uncomfortable with the ambition plans then: If they decide they do not want to take advantage of this opportunity. just one version of a familiar risk within welfare systems that rely on value-driven organisations: what happens to the person in need who can’t or 5 . 6. of course. if one wishes to be housed.to be overseen. The tenants’ lives become a project – or a series of projects associated with a series of tenancies .

won’t adhere to the values espoused by available service providers? Do such people put themselves beyond help as a result of their unwillingness to conform? 7. Such commitment mechanisms can be seen as helping households overcome preferences. Like any such behavioural mechanism it is open to the criticism that it psychologises the problem. It locates the source of a household’s problems in some deficiency in their own behaviour or perseverance. The Household Ambition Plan is a new. It could be taken to imply that these are ambitions that the household already holds. The ambitions articulated in a Household Ambition Plan are not those that the household members themselves identify. The alternative view is that this sort of scheme has a strong hint of paternalism about it. inspired by lessons from behavioural economics. mechanism for assisting households to achieve objectives that had previously escaped them. is how household ambitions are identified and who identifies them. A spokeswoman for the housing association is quoted in the paper as seeing the scheme as “positive” because it would help people “realise their full potential and achieve what they might like to do”. discounting biases and time-inconsistent 6 . potentially powerful. self-control problems. which is not clear from the Independent article. The word “might” in that statement may or may not be significant. Whose version of ambition? One of the intriguing elements of this agenda. If this blemish in their character is removed then their situation will be improved. The initiative would therefore be very much in line with the sort of thinking associated with the broader behaviour change agenda. This sort of approach can distract from the possibility that the seat of the problem lies in structural or societal factors that act to place the household in a disadvantaged position. They are inserted by someone making judgements about where a household is deficient and to what it should aspire.

chairman of the Tenants’ and Residents’ Organisation of England. He is quoted by the Independent as saying: You can’t tell me not to smoke if I smoke. “I’m not a social underclass. It is a tremendous despotism. This has been drawn up by people in well-paid jobs sipping wine on their verandas saying ‘we’ve sorted the underclass out’. I have quantities of drunkards. or not to drink if I drink or how to live my life. 8. I am reminded of the statement made by Octavia Hill. but it is exercised with a view of bringing out the powers of the people. Rewind to the Victorian era? The responsibilization of tenants has been a thread running through policy for the best part of two decades. 7 .Michael Gelling. I don’t think anyone can sensibly be against landlords offering their tenants support in order to help them improve their skills or improve their quality of life. the pioneer of social housing management in Britain. But. The question is on whose terms? Once there is a sense of compulsion about participation – as with workfare – the desirability of such initiatives becomes much more contested.” he said. but everything depends upon whether I think the drunkard will be better for being sent away or not. I’m a human being. I’m sure other landlords will be watching with interest. takes this view of the Yarlington scheme. and treating them as responsible for themselves within certain limits … you cannot get the individual action in any other way that I know o f. How much control households perceive themselves to have over the identification of the ambitions included in their plan will no doubt be important in shaping how this initiative is received. it is redolent of much older currents in housing management thought. of course. to the Royal Commission on the housing of the working classes in 1885: I do not say that I will not have drunkards [in my properties].

but in ways that are handed down. anything more is a luxury. as landlords are forced by the cold hand of competition to compete with no-frills lean and mean for-profit providers.One reading of our situation is that we are moving into an era in which the sort of philanthropic sentiment we most closely associate with the Victorians is resurgent. An era in which people are obliged to take responsibility. An era in which Old Etonians can claim to be particularly suited to public service by virtue of the particularities of their exclusive education. Delivering the financial performance necessary to satisfy the exacting requirements of the bond markets will leave no room for sentiment. 8 . But to do so not in ways that are self-determined. An elitist era of unashamed paternalism. An alternative reading of our situation is that we are in a period of transition. The increasing commercial pressures on social landlords are such that all talk of values. But that is an argument for another day. mission and going the extra mile for your tenants will to turn out to be transient. Landlords will need to be focused on collecting the rent.

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