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Where are we going? Matthew Warburton - 16/11/2012

Matt_blur_300Delegates at the ARCH / HouseMark Stock Retained Councils conference this week agreed that 2012 has been a year of great change for council housing - and ARCH. But where are we going next?

Optimists celebrated the generosity of the self-financing settlement, which has cushioned housing from the agony of cuts under way in other council services, and providing opportunities for increased investment, greening existing council homes or building new ones.

Pessimists foresaw a perfect storm of benefit cuts driving up rent arrears, wiping out the rent surpluses needed to support new investment and leaving other council tenants seeing their rents fill the gap created by government welfare policies instead of being used to keep their homes in good repair.

Local circumstances differ, of course, and the impact of cuts in housing benefit on an authority will depend on a number of variables, including the proportion of renting households and the split between private and social tenancies, the level of rents and the number of underoccupying working households.

A straw poll of the proportion of council tenants affected by the bedroom tax, for example, showed variation between 10 and over 20 per cent among the councils represented. So it is clear that the implications of welfare reform will be bigger in some places than others.

Whether so big as to realise the pessimists' fears remains to be seen. But certainly enough to make many councils see the sense of looking just as hard at housing management costs as they are forced to look at service costs across the rest of the council.

Many councils reported that they had taken advantage of the changes introduced by the Localism Act to revisit allocations and tenancy policies.

Choices whether or not to introduce flexible tenancies predictably tended to follow political control, although several non-Conservative councils were planning to use them.

Virtually all councils present were, however, planning to make use to some extent of the power to discharge their duties to homeless households through the private rented sector, and there was a lively debate on the potential for challenge to councils choosing to offer such housing outside the local area.

All in all, it has been a year of great change. And with an updated National Housing Strategy likely to appear at the end of this month, followed by the Chancellor's Autumn statement on 5 December, there is every prospect of a new clutch of housing and welfare policy announcements before the year comes to an end. The pace of change looks unlikely to abate.

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