Residents and landlords need flexibility on tenancies
If plans to scrap lifetime tenancies for new social housing tenants go ahead, landlords must be given the flexibility to support different tenants in different areas, says CIH policy and practice officer David Pipe.
It is now more than three years since social landlords in England were first given the choice of issuing new tenants with a traditional ‘lifetime’ tenancy or a tenancy for a fixed term. Government statistics show that since then the use of fixed term tenancies has increased gradually, but that they still account for a minority of new lets – 13 per cent of tenants moving in to a general needs property were issued with a fixed term tenancy in 2014/15, up from nine per cent the year before.
However that could soon change as back in July, as part of the chancellor’s summer budget, the government announced a plan to review the use of lifetime tenancies. Four months on the details of the review have still yet to be made public, but Inside Housing has reported that all landlords in England will shortly be required to issue fixed term tenancies to all new tenants. It’s therefore a good time to reflect on the initial experiences of those organisations which are already using fixed term tenancies, and to think about the lessons that both government and other social landlords can learn from them ahead of a possible wider roll-out.
'It is vital that decisions can be made locally'
One thing that is absolutely clear is that it is vital that decisions about how fixed term tenancies are used can be made locally. A strength of the current voluntary system is that it has allowed individual landlords to consider local circumstances and to use fixed terms to work towards a variety of different objectives in different areas. This has included, for example:
• making more efficient use of stock, by addressing under occupation and overcrowding
• helping more tenants to move on to other housing options, such as shared or outright home ownership, when they are able to do so
• supporting more tenants to move in to training or employment
• improving rates of tenancy sustainment among particular groups of tenants.
If the government is going to make the use of fixed terms mandatory, it is essential that it does so in a way that retains as much local flexibility as possible. It would be extremely difficult to prescribe a single set of rules, covering areas such as the circumstances in which landlords should or should not renew a tenancy, which would work across the whole country. Individual landlords operate in very different environments and the lesson from those already using fixed terms is that what works in Wandsworth won’t necessarily work in Barnsley.
This should also include some local flexibility to identify exceptions as, undoubtedly, there will be occasions where it is simply much more appropriate to continue using lifetime tenancies. For example, this might help to make downsizing into sheltered housing a more attractive option for some. It is likely that individual landlords will be best placed to make these decisions and so we would encourage the government to allow some freedom for them to identify local exceptions.
How long should a 'fixed term' be?
Finally, there is also a question over the length of fixed terms which landlords are able to use. Under the current voluntary system five years is clearly the most commonly used term but some landlords are using shorter terms, usually two years, for some specific groups of tenants. Others are using longer terms, often 10 years, to balance their need to make the best use of their stock with the need to also promote successful communities and to offer an appropriate level of security to individual households, particularly those with young children. Ultimately, the length of the tenancy should reflect the household’s circumstances and what the landlord is trying to achieve and so we would also encourage government to allow landlords to continue to offer a range of terms, between two and 10 years, as they see fit.
We will provide further information and advice for CIH members as more details of the government’s review emerges. In the meantime, our good practice briefing New approaches to fixed term tenancies provides a range of examples of how fixed terms are already being used in different areas.