Keith Parkins | 11.02.2004 16:51 | London
'The vote in Camden shows we can win when we organise effective broad based campaigns that give tenants the case against privatisation and for direct investment ... If we can do it so can you. It takes some effort - but it's worth it.' -- Camden DCH
In what was widely seen as a rigged ballot, Camden council tenants created shockwaves when 77% voted NO to privatization of their homes. This was despite the £283 million bribe if they said yes, despite the massive pro-privatisation propaganda from the council.
A public meeting was held Tuesday evening 10 February 2004 to consider the outcome and the way forward. Although of interest to the residents of Camden, people came from across London and from as far afield as Birmingham and Farnborough in Hampshire.
The first speaker was Dame Jane Roberts, neo-Labour leader of Camden Council. Having spent nearly £500,000 of taxpayers money to convince tenants to vote yes, she was now on the tenants side. The level of her new found commitment to Camden council tenants was seen by the fact that she left as soon as she had finished speaking. A further measure of the commitment, was the near absence of Labour councillors from the meeting.
Another speaker was a tenant activist from Tower Hamlets (east London). She told of how having been told no, the council kept returning with variations of the ballot in the hope of getting a yes vote.
A speaker from Unison said the campaign had the full backing of Unison and emphasised the importance of activists and trade unionists and tenants all working together.
Frank Robson MP arrived part way through the meeting. To warm applause, he told the meeting how he still lived in a council house and was proud to be a council house tenant. Probably the most important thing Dobson had to say was whether council housing was under the council or privatised, the money injected by the government had no different effect on public finances. The conclusion to be drawn that it was not a public finance issue, but Blair/Thatcher dogma to destroy public services. To his credit, Frank Dobson remained after he had spoke to hear what people had to say.
Many problems were raised, the bias in any ballot, the failure of government to provided finance to councils (finance that is available to privatised housing), the lack of real options on any ballot.....
But it is not all bad news. Tenants are voting NO, no matter what the bribes/blackmail from Neo-Labour, tenants still vote NO. When tenants hear the full story, they vote no, 200 councils are holding out and refusing to push their council tenants into the private sector. Unison have money available to support the NO campaign. Local branches should apply for this political funding. The Camden campaign could not have succeeded without Unison backing.
At least 130 MPs have signed an EDM (Council Housing Early Day Motion 116) supporting tenants’ demands for direct investment without strings attached. Has your MP signed? A new EDM has been tabled in Parliament, EDM 430 Investment and choice for council tenants. Has your MP signed?
Tenants are given three choices in a ballot, activists are pushing for a fourth choice (remain under the council). But the three choices (transfer to housing associations, PFI, or Arms length Management), are privatisation with slight variations, thus a single choice masquerading as choice.
It was suggested a real choice: stay with the council, privatisation, or direct tenants control of their estates.
One of the most important points to emerge was for groups across the country to liaise and share what they are doing, to work together.
Not mentioned at the meeting, but essential to stress that its importance cannot be overstated, privatization is part of the neo-liberal globalisation agenda. Under WTO/GATS, social housing is one of the 106 areas to be liberalised (ie sold off). If GATS goes through, social housing could be taken over by global corporations. It is essential therefore that opponents to council house privatisation recognise that this is not a little local difficulty. If they are opposed to council house sell off, then they must join the worldwide opposition to GATS.
The message that went out loud and clear Tuesday night from Camden Town Hall, was that if neo-Labour have not got the message with the 77% NO vote, activists will stand in the May local elections and kick them out of office.
Later a hard core discussed the issues further at the local pub.
On a council estate in Islington (north London), the tenants had working against them not only the council, or the housing association who wanted to acquire their houses, but also several tenants associations. The housing association was churning out videos, glossy brochures (even family away days), promising new kitchens and bathrooms, a clean up of the yobs on the estates. A tale very familiar and being told across the country. And as tenants who transfer find to their cost, a pack of lies.
A decade ago Rushmoor council tenants were told these fairy tales, rents would be kept low, repairs would be carried out, the sun would always shine. A decade ago people believed fairy tales and voted yes to stock transfer, and what was then Rushmoor council housing (estates in Aldershot and Farnborough), plus estates in Ash across the county border in Guildford, agreed to transfer to what was to become Pavilion Housing Association.
Ten years on, repairs are not being carried out, rents (once the rent cap had been lifted) are rising, yobs are terrorising the estates.
Tenancies are not secure. Pavilion are trying to flog a small estate of 28 maisonettes in Farnborough to a developer to enable the estate to be levelled for a car park for a superstore. This is part of an unwanted town centre redevelopment for which the council has unlawfully granted planning permission and abused the human rights of the tenants, and has threatened to serve compulsory purchase orders (CPOs) on anyone who gets in their way. This is now being challenged by means of a judicial review (in the High Court in London 12 February 2004).
Pavilion tenants are not taking it lying down, and are increasingly willing to challenge Pavilion either through the courts or simply by exposing their activities through the local media. Where they have lacked almost total support (there are some honourable exceptions) is through their local councillors.
But what the Pavilion experience demonstrates, is that no matter how bad it may be under council control, it gets a whole lot worse in the private sector.
That's why more and more tenants are voting NO as the message spreads. Birmingham threw £36 million at the problem, the tenants voted 2:1 NO, Camden threw £500,000, the tenants voted 3:1 NO. This is taxpayers money, money that could be spent on improving council housing stock.
There are beneficiaries of council house privatisation, its just that they are not the tenants – the executives on their fat cat salaries, the consultants with their extortionate fees, the bankers with their Shylock interest rates.
Defend Council Housing produce excellent campaign material, and it was the Camden branch that helped organise the NO vote in Camden and the follow up public meeting in Camden Town Hall. A national conference is planned for 27 March 2004 in London.
Extensive coverage of Tenants v Pavilion can be found in the alternative local media (and if you are fighting locally it is important you establish your own media outlets):
Other useful websites (some official) include:
Useful background reading:
The Case for Council Housing (2nd ed), Defend Council Housing, date unknown
Simon Coughlin, Delays annoy councillors, Farnborough News, 6 February 2004
Keith Parkins, GATS, www.heureka.clara.net, February 2001
Keith Parkins, Trashing of Farnborough Town Centre, Indymedia UK, 14 November 2002
Keith Parkins, Farnborough town centre - compulsory purchase orders, Indymedia UK, 16 October 2003
Keith Parkins, A sense of the masses - a manifesto for the new revolution, www.heureka.clara.net, November 2003
Keith Parkins, Town & Out II, Corporate Watch, 14 January 2004
Keith Parkins, Social landlords are deviating from their intended purpose, Indymedia UK, 20 January 2004
Keith Parkins, Social housing landlords the new corporations, Corporate Watch newsletter No 17, January-February 2004
Keith Parkins, A crisis of democracy, to be published
Keith Parkins, Scandal of social housing on Tyneside and 'forced' transfer to private sector, Corporate Watch, to be published
Keith Parkins, Farnborough town centre - judicial review, to be published
Residents defeat housing privatisation, Solidarity Issue 5, Spring 2004