UK Politics

Social tenants in England to get wider home swap choice

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Media captionHousing Minister Grant Shapps: "This will be nothing to do with people who are in existing council houses"'

People who live in social housing in England will be able to swap homes more easily with other tenants anywhere in the country, under government plans.

The Freedom Pass will allow them to see details of every council and housing association tenant looking to exchange.

They have previously only been able to do this in their local area, or through a more complicated system elsewhere.

It comes after David Cameron said council houses should no longer be allocated "for life".

The prime minister said future tenants could move out after a "fixed period" to make way for those in greater need.

His comments were seized on by Labour, who accused him of threatening the long-term stability people value from secure tenancy.

'Quality of life'

But Mr Cameron said people who succeed in getting better-paid jobs should be encouraged into the private housing sector, saying there needed to be more "flexibility" in the system.

Housing Minister Grant Shapps said Mr Cameron was simply "opening up the debate" and any changes - such as to the rule about being able to assign social housing to a second generation - would not affect any existing council or housing association tenants.

He said such changes were only being considered for future tenancy agreements.

Mr Shapps told BBC Radio 5Live the intention of making swaps easier was so tenants could "get the best out of life" and avoid "feeling trapped".

He said he was also exploring the possibility of enshrining a "right to move" in law, monitoring pilot schemes in two London boroughs - Kensington and Chelsea and Hammersmith and Fulham - which allow some tenants to ask their social housing landlord to find them a home in an area where they want to live.

The council or housing association would then be forced to sell the property and use the proceeds to buy accommodation for the tenant in another area.

The National Home Swap Scheme database will allow people in unsuitable accommodation - such as a pensioner who wants to move to a smaller home - to swap for something more suitable, he said.

More than 250,000 households currently live in overcrowded social housing while a further 430,000 households are unable to easily downsize from larger properties they no longer need.

Mr Shapps said: "Social housing should provide more than a roof over people's heads - it should lift them out of poverty, and free them to take chances to improve the quality of their own lives.

"Instead, many tenants are left trapped in their own homes, while councils and housing associations turn their attention to record waiting lists.

"This cannot continue - as we work to tackle the record budget deficit we must ensure vulnerable people benefit from, but don't become trapped by, the safety net that social housing provides.

"That's why I'm putting tenants in the driving seat, with a new opportunity to see people like them looking to exchange social homes not just in their area but across the country, through a new National Home Swap Scheme."

'Step forward'

The government says current house swap schemes are "patchy" in nature and the new National Home Swap database will be open to all eight million tenants in social housing in England. Mr Shapps said he hoped to legislate later in the year to create the swap scheme.

He said the "right to move" was just an idea at the moment but he would pass a law bringing it into effect if the other measures did not succeed in increasing the mobility of tenants.

"Why do we have to be stuck in a past era where we say that once you get a home you keep that home forever and pass it on to the next generation?," he told the BBC News Channel.

Shadow housing minister John Healey, for Labour, said: "Making it easier for tenants to exchange with one another for more suitable accommodation is of course a good thing but no substitute for building new housing.

"I also fear these measures could be taken as a green light by some to pressure people out of their homes. Not least, as the announcement follows David Cameron letting the cat out of the bag on the Tories' secret agenda to remove security of tenure."

But Mr Shapps' announcement has been welcomed by the UK's largest housing association, Circle Anglia, which operates a similar scheme with its own properties.

Circle Anglia executive director of strategy and new business, David Williams, said: "The creation of a national database will be a huge step forward for social housing tenants.

"Poor mobility within the sector is currently preventing hundreds of thousands of people from moving home to take up employment, care for sick and elderly relatives and relieve overcrowding."

The home swap scheme was also welcomed by the National Housing Federation, but the organization said it was "sceptical" about the practicality of introducing a "right to move" nationwide.

Last month, Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith suggested social housing tenants could be given incentives to relocate where there are jobs - prompting accusations from Labour that he was resurrecting a "profoundly unfair" 1980s Conservative call to the unemployed to "get on your bikes".

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