Last week, I asked a question that has sparked an impassioned debate and inspired many column inches.
That question was whether social housing can be more than a vital safety net for the most vulnerable, but also be a springboard to opportunity. Most controversially, I asked whether it would be right to ask new tenants who can work to sign ‘commitment contracts’ when getting a tenancy, agreeing to engage with job seeking or training in return for better support?
Let’s get something straight. I’m a Labour Minister, intent on building 3 million homes by 2020, and 45,000 new social housing units each year as part of that. I want to see full employment, poverty eradicated; and with £8 billion investment in social housing, our ambition is for every neighbourhood to be a place people want to live; not a place they can’t wait to get out of.
Having been brought up in private rented and council housing, I make no apologies for starting this difficult debate. The level of worklessness on some estates is a stark problem.
The response to my speech has been vocal and varied; from the sneering defeatism of the Conservatives, to the apocalyptic predictions of Crisis and Shelter. But others have contacted my office to say that they agreed that there was more that some of their neighbours could do to help themselves, given the right support.
Contrary to how some opponents have portrayed the debate, I made clear I was talking about expectations for new tenants who can work, not the vulnerable like the elderly, carers or those with disabilities who can’t.
I, for one, am not prepared to accept that there is no more we can do to unlock the talent in these communities.
Today, more than half of working age social tenants aren’t working – more than double the national rate. Among young people, the situation is even worse. The problem is so bad that an independent review described it as a collapse in employment rates among social tenants.
Despite the success we have had in recent years in moving a million people off benefits there are still too many children growing up in Britain today without ever seeing an adult get up and go to work in the morning. This is a major contributor to inter-generational poverty. But it wasn’t always like this.
I have been accused this week of stigmatising council tenants. I couldn’t disagree more. Council housing used to bring people together, giving security to hard working families, living in strong neighbourhoods. Today, many council tenants have the same values: hard-working, supporting their neighbours and families. But there are also estates that are marginalised and overlooked, workless, usually unpopular.
Unless we are honest enough to recognise the stigma that is already attached to some of our most difficult estates, we will never make a difference. And we will fail to give a second chance and a better offer to those residents.
Social housing will always have a strong role in supporting the most vulnerable. I don’t underestimate for one minute the challenges that some people face in their lives, or the levels of support they will need to help them into work. But there are also many who are currently unemployed who could find work with the right training and support. With childcare, in-work credits, transitional grants, and personal advisers, there is more help than ever before. It is not social justice to stand by and watch young people getting left behind as the rest of us share in our country’s rising prosperity.
What I want us to consider is whether we can offer new tenants a complete package of incentives and opportunities along with the keys to their new home. In return, is it unreasonable that those who can work, should be actively looking to do so?
A package which might include skills audits, training opportunities and advice on seeking work. In this way, we can make sure that social housing is more than a roof over your head – crucial as that is – but that it helps people gain more control over their own lives.
And for existing tenants, greater prioritiy for those who need to move for work; expanding existing schemes to offer tenants who cannot afford to buy outright, the opportunity to buy a share; how do we give them a stronger voice to drive up standards of local services; and how do we improve links between housing and employment services at neighbourhood level?
Many working in the sector are already deeply concerned about unemployment and are already taking practical steps to tackle it. Like the Notting Hill Housing Trust, which is going to trial a form of “commitment contracts” through their Moving Forward project. New tenants will make a genuine commitment to improve their skills and look for work.
Or like the Foyer Federation Network, which helps ten thousand young people each year. They ask young people to sign a learning agreement in return for a roof over their head. The results are inspiring.
Many social tenants have a real appetite for change and self-improvement. Most say they’d like to own their own home. If we don’t support their aspirations, then we are failing to live up to our responsibilities.
Caroline Flint is Minister for Housing