The government has quietly sought to strip future council tenants of the right to live in their home for life, in a move condemned by Labour as likely to "break up communities". Ministers have submitted an amendment to the housing and planning bill, currently going through parliament, that would set a five-year maximum limit to new secure tenancies.
The proposal, submitted on 8 December, means an end to the current system which has allowed some social housing tenants to live in the same council home for life. While not affecting those with existing contracts, it will mean a next-of-kin inheriting the home will have to apply to sign a new restricted tenancy agreement, which, if granted, could be as short as two years.
In an explanatory note to the amendment, housing minister Brandon Lewis wrote: "A secure tenant can currently live in a property for life. This amendment phases out lifetime tenancies. In future, secure tenancies will generally have to be for a fixed term of 2 to 5 years and will not automatically be renewed. Towards the end of the term, the landlord will have to do a review to decide whether to grant a new tenancy or recover possession."
While councils and housing associations can already impose shorter tenancies under measures introduced by the coalition government, few offer anything other than long contracts.
David Cameron had originally mooted the idea of limited council tenancies in 2010 but admitted that "not everyone will support this and there will be quite a big argument". He had said: "There is a question mark about whether, in future, we should be asking when you are given a council home, is it for a fixed period? Because maybe in five or 10 years you will be doing a different job and be better paid and you won't need that home, you will be able to go into the private sector."
John Healey, Labour's shadow minister for housing and planning, condemned the latest proposals and accused Conservative ministers of having "a vendetta against council tenants and council homes". He said: "People will be astonished that ministers are legislating to deny families a stable home. This will cause worry and upheaval for tenants, and break up communities.
"Councils are already able to decide on the length of tenancy they want to offer according to local needs. Margaret Thatcher passed the law to give council tenants secure tenancies which David Cameron is now tearing up.
"There are already 32 new powers for the secretary of state in this Housing Bill. Once again the government is determined to override local decisions and impose the worst aspects of the private rented sector on social tenants – less affordable rents and now less secure tenancies."
Under the proposed amendment, if the local authority decides to terminate the tenancy they will be required to provide advice to support the tenant into home ownership or to help them access other housing options, whichever is appropriate.
The measures could see a surge in people taking advantage of the government's Right to Buy scheme, seeing them purchase their council house before their current tenancy runs out.
A spokesman for the department of communities and local government said: "It's only right that tenancies are reviewed after several years, to identify whether circumstances of tenants have changed. This is about ensuring we make the best use of social housing based on need and income. It only applies to new tenancies."