Council Housing – transfer will not address the housing crisis

An Open Letter to Swindon Borough Council’s Conservative Group

Swindon Council’s Cabinet has decided to propose to the full Council meeting on July 16th that the Council tenants be balloted with a view to transferring all the housing stock to a Housing Association. This is a result of the recent ‘options appraisal’ which examined Housing finances over the next 30 years. The ‘consultation process’ was one sided to say the least. Based on a 30 year projection which is questionable (there will be at least six governments in office in this time span) we have been told that there is ‘no alternative’ to the transfer of our Council homes to a Housing Association.

The timing of this is somewhat ironic since we have seen in the last eighteen months how rapidly economic ‘orthodoxy’ which is widely accepted can be shown to be false, and discredited. In place of the maxim ‘there is no alternative’ (to free market economics and ‘neo-liberalism’) we rapidly moved to almost universal acceptance of the need for an alternative because of the crisis into which the world had been plunged.

Housing was a major component of this crisis, partly based on credit unrelated to earnings. In Britain, the housing crisis, including the chronic shortage of ‘affordable housing’, resulted from the sale of Council housing, the ban on building new Council homes, started by the Tories and continued by New Labour; the worship of home ownership, and the ‘irresponsible lending’ on which much of the mortgage selling was based.

Swindon Council appears to have learned nothing from this. With all its resources, it has consistently driven home the message to tenants, that owing to financial circumstances, ‘there is no alternative’ but to transfer the housing stock. Yet despite all their efforts (according to the Advertiser) the Council was able to gain the support of only 191 tenants who ticked a box saying they agreed with transfer – yes, that is one hundred and ninety one. The ruling group on the Council has determined to ballot for transfer on the basis of the apparent support of such a tiny number of the 10,500 tenants.

The Tory group has complained that they have no choice because of government policy. It is certainly true that that the current Housing Revenue system is fundamentally flawed. Swindon, like the majority of Councils has a ‘negative subsidy’, receiving less grant from the government than rent we collect from tenants. The Council has asked the government for the right to keep all the rent they collect from our tenants. We agree with such a demand and believe that all Councils should be able to keep all their rent. But we have some questions for the ruling Conservative group.

Why do they think it necessary to press ahead with this proposal when the chances are (barring some planetary catastrophe) they will have their own government elected to Westminster within a year? If they are demanding that this government allow them to keep all the rent paid by tenants in Swindon, have they sought a commitment from their own party leadership that they can keep all the rent? If so what have they said? If not, why have they not pressed Cameron on this? Unless they press their own party on this question, then people in Swindon can only conclude that their demand on this government is only political posturing; that the same financial position for tenants is likely to be maintained by a Conservative government.

If a new Tory government at the national level was offering anything better to tenants we suspect that we would have heard something about it. Investigate the Conservatives’ national website for their Housing policy and you will see very little. Other than the obligatory reference to the need for new housing, their site says little about Council tenants, except insofar as it pledges this:

Whereas Labour have curtailed the right of social tenants to own their home, a Conservative

Government will make it easier for social tenants to own or part-own their home. This will not only help people up the housing ladder, but also ensure residents have greater pride and a greater stake in their community.”

That’s it. They want to sell-off more Council housing with no commitment to build any more! So whilst their spin doctors present the picture of a new ‘moderate’, centre ground Party under the leadership of ‘Dave’, they in fact appear to be returning to Thatcher who helped to create the housing crisis by the give away of public assets on the cheap. Or as Harold Macmillan called it “selling the family silver”.

The comment on “greater pride and a greater stake in their community” is in fact an insult to Council tenants, implying that only home owners have an interest in their local community.

David Renard made a public commitment that if tenants were opposed to transfer then he would be prepared to accept that provided that they recognised that the service provided ‘could not be as good as in the past’, given the financial constraints they faced.

According to the figures quoted by the Advertiser 298 people were completely opposed to transfer, 366 were “concerned” about the possibility of transfer, with 191 in favour. In other words barely more than one in five of those who ventured an opinion were in favour of transfer.

Why did so few people participate in the ‘consultation’? None of us have sufficient information to make a definitive judgement. Some will no doubt speak of ‘apathy’. Others would suggest that many are sceptical about Council ‘consultation’, believing that they have already made up their minds. There is much real evidence for this scepticism as the experience of the Coate and other consultations have shown. When the last ‘options appraisal’ took place the overwhelming majority of tenants expressed their support for staying with the Council; around 90%. Have their opinions changed significantly? We don’t think so.

Last time the Council organised meetings on the Council estates at which there was a debate, and any tenant could express their point of view. This time round, with the exception of sheltered housing, where there is so to speak a captive audience, the Council did not organise meetings. Asked why this was, a senior officer told us that “the problem with meetings is that people with strong opinions have a lot to say”. It is hard not to conclude that they were frightened of an open debate about the options.

What they are implying by refusing to organise meetings, is that these poor unsuspecting tenants will be misled by opponents of transfer who will “dominate” the meetings. This is ironic given the resources that the Council has to put their view. So they organised events at which tenants were given the ‘facts’ by Council officers and the so-called ‘Independent Tenants’ Advisers’, in individual discussions.

It says a great deal about the patronising view of tenants held by the Council and some officers that they appear to believe that tenants can somehow be bamboozled into opposing transfer and that the officers are defending tenants’ right to ‘make up their own minds’. This is a travesty of reality, since tenants are naturally suspicious of those in authority selling them promises. Perhaps the Council leaders and the officers can explain to us why after all their money and effort they could only convince 191 people despite the fact that they can write to all of them, as they have done, consistently pushing the ‘no alternative’ line.

Finally, we have a question about the ballot process. When the ballot takes place will tenants be provided with arguments for and against the proposal? Or will the Council just send out their own propaganda? Will they make a commitment that the campaign against transfer will be given the opportunity to put our case to the tenants, so that they can read material putting the arguments for and against and then make up their minds?

With the numbers on the Council house waiting list continuing to rise, transfer will not address the housing crisis. We need more Council Housing, not less. The campaign for Councils to keep all their rental income must continue, whatever the complexion of the government. It’s high time to end the discrimination against Council tenants.

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