In a policy labelled by the local Labour MP as a “Hammersmith House of Horrors”, the Conservative-led council for Hammersmith & Fulham London Borough has managed to reduce their social housing list by thousands through a radical policy change.
The council has limited its housing waiting list to only those with a five-year connection to the Borough, a combined salary of less than £40,200 or a strong alternative reason (eg. disability). In doing so, they have cut around 9000 potentials from the list – leaving just 1100 people, they believe, truly in need of social housing.
The change came following Hammersmith & Fulham’s review of the current ‘open register’ system, whereby anyone could apply for social housing in the hope that they may, eventually, benefit from a heavily subsidised home. The system was seen to be open to abuse, resulting in greatly warped waiting list figures that have been frequently wheeled out by the media when highlighting the extent of London’s social housing shortage. As such, the council believes artificially high figures have been used to justify policies that would construct thousands more social homes, when the solution lies primarily with incumbent stock and the private sector.
Within the 1,100 applicants that remain, the priority goes to those who are working, those in training leading to employment and those making a significant contribution to the community, eg ex-service personnel and foster carers.
Although the council itself recognises that those on the political left will disapprove of the policy, they strongly stress that this is an attempt to make the system fairer. Councillor Andrew Johnson, Cabinet Member for Housing, writing on ConservativeHome, enthuses:
“For many on the left this may seem grossly unfair, yet in reality the opposite is true. Our new register replaces a system that allowed anyone, from any part of the country, and indeed overseas, to apply for social housing, irrespective of whether they were eligible for it, or were even a homeowner. There were also cases of people sitting on the list for as long as 36 years.
“Those 90% of applicants who were removed never stood a realistic chance of ever getting a home, despite waiting for years. Not because there is a shortage of homes, but the fact that they would never be eligible for them. Yet they were told to join and given false hope that one day they might get something, despite the fact that they are already adequately housed.
“Our new system is fairer and more credible. By reducing our housing register down to 1,100 local people who are in real need of a home here in Hammersmith & Fulham we have created a system which enables housing officers to focus more intensively on each applicant, rather than updating forms for people they knew were not eligible for social housing. We make around 470 new lettings each year so those who are on the new register now stand a real chance of getting a council home rather than waiting for years under an illusion of false hope.”
Nevertheless, local MP and former council leader Andrew Slaughter has pulled no punches with his criticism of these changes. He is reported to have commented:
“Thousands of families currently awaiting new homes will find themselves thrown off the housing register; new tenants will be subjected to draconian short-term tenancy agreements, and those people who are lucky enough to survive this tsunami of bureaucracy will face above-inflation rent increases.”
The 9,000 or so applicants now refused access to the list have been directed elsewhere, to low-cost home ownership schemes, in an attempt by the Council to foster a ‘property owning democracy’ in their section of London. Proponents have responded to Mr Slaughter’s comments by highlighting his falling into the trap of confusing those who ‘need’ a home with whose who ‘want’ a new home.
Those low-cost options are accessed through a separate register with the council and the council has decided to give top priority to existing council and housing association tenants with a household income of up to £66,000, followed by members of the armed forces, police officers and others who live or work in the borough.
The council reports that more than 5000 so far have applied to this list, five times the number now on the social housing list. This is a figure which they indicate points to an ‘insatiable appetite for people in this Borough to get onto the housing ladder’ and the council has actually created its own company to help deliver some of these homes, planning to construct 500 properties in the next decade.
Hammersmith & Fulham is not alone in this approach, although it has been perhaps the most prolific so far. Councils in Bournemouth and three other London Boroughs (Bromley, Barnet and Westminster) have cut thousands off their waiting lists in similar ways and, should their methods prove effective in the current months, yet more Conservative led councils will no doubt follow suit.
The movement may now suffer following the County Elections, however, where the Tories lost hundreds of seats. Many councils in un-safe constituencies will no doubt have already held off before introducing such a controversial policy to protect their vote, so the proliferation of this sort of policy will likely depend, at least in part, on how many Conservative councils with this policy on their radar still remain in control of their constituencies.