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Allocating council housing – flexibility is two-edged Matthew Warburton - 05/07/2012

house_of_cards_300Housing Minister Grant Shapps chose to headline his news release launching revised guidance on allocation of council housing as "Housing help for military families", probably in an attempt to stir some media interest in what would otherwise have been a non-story.

Not only is the Government rightly keen to be seen to be acting to support those serving their country, but encouragement to give greater priority to Armed Forces personnel and their families is practically the only area where the new guidance is more prescriptive than that which it replaces.

Elsewhere, the guidance generally offers more flexibility. Indeed, as the Minister proudly points out in his introduction, the new guidance is one third the length of its predecessor.

This new flexibility is, however, two-edged. Its main effect is to enable councils to deny priority for council housing to people who might otherwise have expected to receive it. This may well have the effect, as the Government hopes, of reducing waiting lists, but it does not thereby reduce housing need.

Councils are encouraged to revisit their allocations policies in the context of a wider move to an options approach which makes full use of all tenures in responding to housing need. But there is an important difference between enabling councils to help people needing housing in a wider range of ways, and removing from councils any responsibility for providing help. With council budgets so sorely stretched, resources for housing advice and assistance may be hard to find.

Nor should the Government have unrealistic expectations about the impact of their amendments. "Today's new guidance" trumpeted the CLG press release, "will also give councils and housing associations more freedom to use their discretion to reward ambition and achievement - ensuring homes go to the most in need such as hard working families - instead of those who merely know how to tick the most boxes".

Local housing markets vary widely in different parts of England, but in many areas a shortage of affordable housing - in the old meaning of "affordable" as the full range of housing at sub-market rents - remains the critical constraint. It is important that councils are enabled to make the best use of the precious resource of council housing, but rewriting the allocations rules cannot alter the fact that, in many areas, there is just not enough of it.


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