August 4, 2010 2:14 pm

Coalition embroiled in council house row

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The coalition endured a fresh row on Wednesday as Simon Hughes, a senior Liberal Democrat, voiced his opposition to government plans to end council homes for life.

Mr Hughes, who is deputy leader of the party, said he would challenge David Cameron’s proposals, floated the previous day, to end automatic “lifetime tenancy” for all tenants.

“The ideas put forward by David Cameron this week in no way represent the policy of the coalition and certainly do not represent the policy of the Liberal Democrats,” he told the Evening Standard.

“We will not let anybody have their homes taken away. We must continue to support established and cohesive communities where people have the security of knowing that they will continue to have a home.”

The comments prompted frustration within the government as Mr Cameron had only proposed ending the right for new tenants. During a question and answer session in Birmingham he made clear that it would not apply to those currently living in council or social housing.

The aim of the plan is to help the 1.8m households stuck on waiting lists for social housing across the UK.

The National Housing Federation said that it was a fallacy to suggest that many social tenants were wealthy, as only 10 per cent earned more than £20,900. With 8m people in social housing, however, that suggests that 800,000 are earning more than this figure – which is close to the average salary.

Frank Dobson became a cabinet minister on a six-figure salary while living in a council house, one of several instances which has highlighted the flaws of the system.

Mr Hughes said the issue was likely to prompt a row at the Lib Dem annual conference in September. “I’m sure that Liberal Democrats from all over the country will look forward to discussions with our coalition partners over these proposals and fully expressing their views,” he said.

The issue is potentially toxic in urban constituencies where some Lib Dem MPs – such as Mr Hughes – depend on the votes of people living in social housing.

The government said that the policy was not “set in stone” and emphasised that it would consult widely before coming to a decision.

The Tories had denied earlier in the year that they had any plans to overhaul the system of lifetime tenancy, according to John Healey, shadow housing minister. At the time Mr Cameron said the allegations were “simply untrue”.

Mr Healey said scrapping lifetime tenancies would be a blow for those people whose families needed the security of knowing that they could not be easily evicted from their homes.

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