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23 January 1996

An Englishman's home is no longer his castle

Housing policy used to be about building homes. Now, as Dave Cowlard from the Urban Research Group explains, policy is driven by New Labour and centres on opening up people's homes to inspection and regulation

The first elements of the 1996 Housing Act have just come into force. The Act represents the culmination of a cross-party discussion on housing policy and Britain's housing problems. Housing policy is no longer a question of providing homes. It has become one of regulating what people do in them. With the general election just around the corner, one thing is certain: the discussion will not concentrate on the numbers of new homes that each party will pledge to build, but on the measures necessary to deal with nuisance neighbours and awkward tenants.

As from Monday 20 January, local authorities no longer have to provide homes for those in 'vulnerable situations' - such as the homeless. In the past this was generally interpreted by local authorities and campaigners against homelessness as having to provide permanent housing. The Act has changed this so that local authorities only have to provide temporary accommodation for up to two years. There is also a greater emphasis placed on housing people in privately rented accommodation.

In fact, since publication of the government's White Paper 'Our Future Homes' in June 1995, opposition to the Act focused almost completely on homelessness. Charities and campaigners against homelessness have been the only consistent, if sometimes qualified, voice of dissent. Most campaigners claim a dramatic increase in homelessness, even though the numbers of homeless people have actually been declining since figures peaked in 1991, according to both official Department of the Environment figures as well as the charity for the homeless, Shelter. However, the definition of those who are facing potential homelessness is continually widening, leading to disagreements about what exactly constitutes homelessness.

The focus on homelessness has had a serious impact - but not on the numbers sleeping on the streets. Aspects of the Act which increase state control over people's lives have been passed without comment. The problem has been redefined as one of behaviour rather than of inadequate housing stock.

Elements of the Act due to come into effect in February include the introduction of probationary tenancies and measures to deal with nuisance neighbours. Local authorities and housing associations will be given unprecedented scope to openly interfere in people's lives as well as dictating what should and should not be done within the walls of their homes. The definition of nuisance includes everything from noise and verbal or physical abuse through to domestic violence and other anti-social activity. If people do not comply with the regulations set down then a whole series of measures are there to punish them, including injunctions and criminal proceedings.

Although the government pushed the Act through parliament, the content was refined by a process of cross-party consultation. In fact, much of the direction of the anti-social elements of the Act were drawn up by New Labour. Following the government's White Paper, the Labour Party published its own discussion document 'A Quiet Life'. This put forward the idea of anonymous witnesses, injunctions and the Community Safety Order to deal with noisy or problematic neighbours. Not only were the Labour Party ahead in terms of policy proposals but they were already implementing much of what they talked about in various councils around the country. For instance, Labour-controlled Hackney was one of the first to use injunctions against tenants and Manchester City Council introduced a pilot scheme for trial tenancies on the Monsall Estate in 1995. The 1996 Housing Act has the distinct stamp of New Labour policy.

The 1996 Housing Act shows clearly the direction of contemporary policy formation. In almost every area of life, we are confronted with regulations and codes of conduct and warned that we need to be wary of other people. People have been living next door to each other for hundreds of years and this has inevitably led to arguments and conflicts. But people have also managed to sort things out amongst themselves. The current direction is to continually create policies which feed off insecurity and reinforce the idea that you cannot trust anybody. One thing can be guaranteed; once relationships between neighbours become formalised in the law, there is no chance of any resolution.

The old saying 'an Englishman's home is his castle' is as good a starting point as any in establishing the basis of independence from intrusion into our homes. When we close our doors on New Labour's snoopers, it is none of their business what we do.

Dave Cowlard will be speaking at 'the regeneration game' conference in Manchester, England on Saturday 22 February, and can be contacted at urg@mail.informinc.co.uk

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