Social landlord role expands – find tenants jobs
by Paul Gosling
Just ten days into her job and Caroline Flint made national headlines as housing ministers seldom do these days. Some housing professionals acted angrily to Flint’s question of whether new social housing tenants should be required to enter into ‘commitment contracts’, requiring them to actively seek work in return for their subsidised homes. Other managers reacted calmly, saying it built on what many landlords had been doing for years.
Flint’s argument was simple. Social housing has moved in recent decades from being a sector with a mix of tenants, to being primarily for the ‘under-class’ (though that is not a term she used). “Originally, council housing brought together people from different social backgrounds and professions, but this has declined,” she said in her maiden ministerial speech in February. “We need to think radically and start a national debate about how we can reverse this trend, to build strong, diverse estates.”
In particular, Flint argued, social housing providers – councils and housing associations – have a duty to support tenants move into work. Landlords “are often trusted by their tenants when other services are viewed with suspicion,” said the minister. She added: “There should be a better, broader offer available, with new opportunities linked to employment and training.” Social landlords should assist tenants to move into work or training, helping them obtain childcare and provide advice on whether social housing rental is their best option.
Despite the furore, the ideas were not so much Flint’s as put forward by Professor John Hills of the London School of Economics’ Centre for Analysis of Social Exclusion. His report Ends and Means: The future roles of social housing in England, published last year, had been supported by a previous batch of ministers without fuss. Hills presented depressing statistics to argue for substantial reform of the social housing sector.
More than half of working age adults in social housing are without work: twice the national rate. It is rare for social housing tenants to move for a job: yet one in eight of all home moves is work-related. More than a fifth of residents in tenement-type accommodation report their estates are used for drug dealing. Some 70% of social tenants are in the poorest 40% of the population. Perhaps most worringly of all, the proportion of social tenants in work fell from 47% to 32% between 1981 and 2006 – contrary to the trend of reduced unemployment in the rest of the population.
Hills recommended measures to stimulate employment rates. Tenants should have the opportunity to train and work in landlords’ regeneration schemes. There should be more opportunities for choice-based lettings, to assist tenants move for jobs. And more landlords should encourage employment and self-employment for tenants.
Flint and her colleagues have responded with enthusiasm, seeing the opportunity to expand the Government’s welfare-to-work programme into areas where it has been broadly unsuccessful. Several new work and training projects involving social landlords have now been announced by Flint. These include funding for an enhanced ‘housing options’ scheme, to be trialled by 15 councils, in which tenants are given work and welfare advice. In addition, £70m will be given to 69 homeless projects in England, assisting people living in hostels to get jobs. And an Employment Academy for London will assist hundreds of rough sleepers to improve their education and training, and eventually be employed.
These initiatives will be backed by good practice guidance from the Chartered Institute of Housing for social landlords on supporting employment initiatives. CIH expressed reservations about Flint’s initial speech, saying there should not be threats against tenants of losing their homes if they did not find work. But chief executive Sarah Webb agreed, “there is a very clear role for housing organisations to support their tenants out of worklessness”. In fact, as Flint herself pointed out in her contentious speech, social landlords invested £200m in the last five years helping tenants obtain work.
One of the good practice exemplars quoted by CIH is the Whitefriars Housing Group, the largest social housing provider in Coventry. Through a £1.2m construction training scheme – funded by the Learning and Skills Council (which, ironically, is being axed) – over a hundred adults have been supported by social landlords and further education providers. It is intended that tenants’ skills will improve, with some ultimately obtaining a degree-level qualification. In addition, 350 teenage sons and daughters of tenants have been provided with contact with the industry, helping their career choices.
The Learning and Skills Council says that the benefits will flow in two directions, with more local, skilled people, to fill the labour market gaps – particularly in the construction industry. This will help
Whitefriars itself, which has a £240m repair and improvement programme in hand. It expects its contractors to co-operate with the project through partnering arrangements.
Nev Wells, Whitefriars’ regeneration manager, explained: “The industry is struggling to find skilled workers and as the demands for housing continues, the problem is not going to go away. Our training and development agency was established in 2001 to mitigate against the local construction skill shortages. By investing in the community we can create a workforce with the ability to fill our vacancies.”
A similar outlook is expressed by some of the best-performing managers of local authority housing stock. Sheffield Homes is the arms-length management organisation (ALMO) running Sheffield City Council’s housing and is another good practice example quoted by CIH. It has also been praised by the Audit Commission for its effectiveness in supporting ethnic minority tenants into apprenticeships and work.
Through Sheffield Homes’ Local Employee Partnerships, JobCentre Plus provides opportunities to local people – including single parents – to work for Sheffield Homes, with all LEP sufficiently qualified participants guaranteed job interviews. Sheffield Homes’ £669m decent homes investment programme has provided the opportunity so far for 250 local people to gain training and employment opportunities, and this should rise to a thousand by the time the programme is completed. Another scheme, City Stewardship, gives training opportunities to vulnerable young people assessed as being at risk of long-term exclusion from the labour market.
Janet Sharpe, assistant director of investment for Sheffield Homes, said the projects were successful. “By working in collaboration with a series of skilled organisations and integrating our supply chain we have been able to bring real and long lasting opportunities to local people in some of the most disadvantaged communities,” she explained.
But there remains the fear that there is at least a difference of emphasis between most social housing providers and Flint. It was noticeable that the best practice example quoted by the minister in her infamous speech was not one quoted by CIH. Instead, Flint referred to Notting Hill Housing Trust, which is taking a more directive approach to tenants’ involvement in the labour market.
In a Notting Hill pilot scheme in Hammersmith & Fulham, tenants are asked to sign a ‘moving forward contract’. This aims to get more tenants into work, as a means of helping them buy their own properties – which a Notting Hill survey shows is the preferred option of three quarters of its tenants. This would free-up properties for the many applicants on waiting lists. Existing tenants are also given welfare advice, to help them save for their own home. This is a more directive attitude than taken by others.
While it is clear that different landlords are taking varying approaches, the direction of travel is clear. There will be more emphasis on tenants having jobs – and social landlords will play a key role in making that happen.