'Tenants all round Britain are intent on defending council housing against a government dogmatically committed to privatisation. Decent, affordable, secure and accountable housing provided by the local council has served generations well. And contrary to myth, it pays for itself - if all the money it brings in is reinvested.' -- Alan Walter, Defend Council Housing
Under Margaret Thatcher, council tenants were given the right to buy. Although brought in for all the wrong reasons, primarily to smash local authorities, in the same way privatisation of local services was brought in, the right to buy did nevertheless have some merits.
People, in the main, like to own their own homes, free of Rachman landlords. As a broad generalisation, owner occupied homes tend to be in a better state of repair than rented homes as the landlords don't give a damn and the tenants are reluctant to invest money in something that is not theirs, especially if they are forced through disrepair to undertake tasks like maintenance and repair that are a landlord responsibility.
The main criticism of right to buy is that property was sold off far too cheaply, often allowing the former tenants to quickly sell up making a fast buck in process, and that the money realised on sale was not ploughed back into social housing.
What Tony Blair has done is to privatise the entire housing stock, ether through sale to housing associations, or registered social landlords (RSLs) as they are now called, PFI/PPP, or the latest gimmick, arms-length management organisations (ALMOs, privatisation via the back door).
Instead of sales to tenants of their own homes, we have wholesale housing disposal to private landlords whose modus operandi would have made even Rachman blush.
Tenants are given a choice, or what is jokingly called a choice, on whether or not their housing is privatised. A choice if you call one-sided propaganda, false promises, rigged ballots, bribes etc, a choice.
No one would dispute that council housing is bad, the estates badly managed, badly run down, a complete lack of accountability. Therefore it was understandable that when the first wave of ballots went through, tenants voted yes. Especially when tenants were promised new kitchens, bathrooms, a palace fit for a king.
Those who did vote yes, have lived to rue the day.
Former council tenants in the Rotten Borough of Rushmoor are one such group who rue the day they ever agreed to stock transfer. They have now suffered ten years of mismanagement by Pavilion Housing Association. Tenants who have spoken out have been threatened with eviction and ASBOs (anti-social behaviour orders).
It is not only the tenants who have noticed that there is something wrong. Two recent reports have come to the same conclusion. The Audit Commission has recently published a damning indictment of Pavilion. Another report, looking at social deprivation, identified parts of Farnborough and Aldershot as some of the worst deprived areas in the country. The deprived areas were all estates under the mismanagement of Pavilion. This in one of the most affluent parts of the country on the Surrey-Hampshire border.
This was recently brought home to me when I cycled from the south of Farnborough to Aldershot and through some of the Pavilion estates. It was as though I had traveled to another country. Not quite tin-shack shanty towns with open running sewers, but not much better.
Were Pavilion tenants, former Rushmoor tenants, asked to vote now, with what they now know, it would be an overwhelming NO vote for privatisation. According to a survey by local neo-Labour councillors, it would be in excess of 90%.
Tenants across the country have wised up. They are no longer so likely to vote yes. In Birmingham they voted NO, in Camden they voted NO.
In Camden, 77% of tenants voted NO. They voted NO, in spite of neo-Labour spending £500,000 of local taxpayers money to force a yes vote.
But neo-Labour are poor losers. They launched a pernicious prosecution against Alan Walter leader of the NO campaign for the heinous crime of “placing posters on a bus shelter by means of sticky brown tape”. Public pressure has forced Camden to back down and drop the prosecution, but only with great reluctance.
The comments by John Thane, Camden's executive member for environment, that "I very much regret that we have been advised that it would be unwise to prosecute Alan Walter, who was caught red-handed having received warnings to both his organisations and himself" illustrates the contempt neo-Labour has for both the local community and democracy.
A contempt that is simply reflecting neo-Labour at national level. Keith Hill, neo-Labour housing minister, has called the NO campaigners Trotskyists and virtually said the vote is invalid as the wrong result was returned and hinted that the tenants should be re-balloted until they return the right result. The hundreds of millions of pounds that were available from government for modernisation, were the tenants to have voted yes, is no longer available. Central government too, are poor losers.
ASBOs, threats of eviction, pernicious prosecutions for sticking up campaign material, these are some of the techniques that are being used to stifle dissent.
In the light of recent results, all the more surprising the Nottingham result where tenants voted yes for privatisation. Surprising that is until one examines the dirty tricks that were taking place. If a ballot was rigged, then what legitimacy the result?
Dirty tricks included:
- having a very short lead-in time to the ballot and keeping the ballot date under wraps so that campaigners did not get an opportunity to build up support
- not publicising the time and venue of the ballot launch event to prevent campaigners from turning up and protesting
- using the local media to ‘explode the myths’ put out by campaigners and to get the council’s message out
Defend Council Housing national committee member Alan Walter said the council’s tactics were unacceptable. ‘Ballots are now called ahead of the publicised date so tenants vote before they have heard the case against. This makes a mockery of choice in public services.’
Nottingham Council housing director Lynne Pennington defended the dirty tricks by admitting that the tactics had been an important part of the council’s strategy for securing a ‘yes’ vote. She added that the council had been keen for the ballot ‘to get going very quickly’. Questioned on the announcement of the ballot date, she said: ‘We left that as late as possible.’
Another member of the Nottingham housing department said ‘We wanted to wrong foot Defend Council Housing. We preferred to have a relatively short lead-in time as we knew that would limit the time that they had to build up support for their campaign.’
Proponents of privatisation know they cannot win on the basis of a rational honest debate so they resort to lies (as in Camden) and dirty tricks (as in Nottingham).
Not satisfied with the damage to date to social housing – starving councils of funding, forcing tenants into the private sector – Blair has a few more wacky Thatcherite ideas in the pipeline: limited tenancies and sell-off of profitable land upon which the housing stands.
Council tenants’ historic right to a home for life could be ended as part of a package of reforms under consideration by Tony Blair. Tenants are to be given fixed-term contacts, possibly as short as five years.
Council housing often sits on expensive real estate. It is proposed that councils relocate their tenants, no doubt to a less desirable part of town.
Relocation from prime real estate is already happening. Sixteen of the London local authorities have been offering tenants anything up to £30,000 to leave their homes. It was the forced removal of some of Newcastle's poorest people so that the land could be redeveloped as luxury yuppie apartments that did for neo-Labour in Newcastle. In Liverpool whole swathes of social housing is being cleared. In Farnborough 28 maisonettes are earmarked for demolition to make way for a car park for a superstore, part of an unwanted town centre redevelopment.
Defend Council Housing, as the name implies, is opposed to the sell-off of council housing. But this should only be seen as a defensive position. Ultimately council housing should be in the hands of the tenants, not-for-profit companies, run by the tenant for the tenants. To argue for anything less, would be perverse, as it would keep council housing in the hands of the very people who are doing their best to stitch up their tenants.
There is no reason why this would not work. Defend Council Housing has shown that there is already sufficient rental income coming in to make existing council housing self-financing and sustainable. To which should be added the grants the government is only too willing to give to the private sector, once council housing is privatised.
Between 1990 and 2003, £13 billion was siphoned off from tenants' rents by the Treasury. No small wonder there is a £19 billion backlog of repairs and improvements.
Privatisation doesn't come cheap. In 2003-04 the government budgeted £800 million to subsidise sell-offs. It leads to higher rents and higher housing benefit costs. Unison estimates these costs to be running at £249 million a year since 1997.
Last July, the Commons Public Accounts Committee concluded that selling off council housing costs the taxpayer at least £1,300 a home more than councils doing the improvements.
There are sequential benefits to tenants running their own affairs: tenants acquire confidence through running their own affairs, become politicised, start to challenge what is happening around them. Benefits none of the corrupt ruling class wish to see.
Housing Associations are now little more than property development companies. Their social remit long forgotten. Pavilion has invested tens of millions on student accommodation at Surrey University. In Greenwich a student accommodation cum shopping complex is a joint venture with a housing association.
Even their own staff do not like housing associations. Summoned to appear before a committee of Rushmoor council, Mervyn Jones, Pavilion chief executive, tried to justify his piss-poor performance. Everyone was to blame bar himself. In amongst the slides that tried to show how well he was doing, a presentation totally divorced from reality, he said he was trying to get staff turnover down to only 20%! Anywhere else 20% would be regarded as high. On average, staff leave a housing association after only a year. The figures are highest where there is tenant contact. To put these figures in context, employer of last resort, Asda, has an annual staff turnover of just over 20%.
The underlying problem with RSLs, is the lack of transparency, the lack of accountability.
Mario Ambrosi, Almost half of new association staff want to leave jobs in first year, Inside Housing, 30 July 2004
Samantha Chapman, Town plan to beat delays, Farnborough Mail, 3 August 2004
Rebecca Chard, Towns high on deprived list, Aldershot News, 30 July 2004
Rebecca Chard, Deprivation in Rushmoor, Farnborough News, 30 July 2004
Keith Cooper, Home for life under threat, Inside Housing, 30 July 2004
Councils cash in on house boom, Public Agenda, The Times, 3 August 2004
Mike Lane, How to oppress and domesticate a whole community!, Indymedia UK, 29 July 2004
Keith Parkins, A sense of the masses - a manifesto for the new revolution, www.heureka.clara.net, October 2003
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, Camden council house transfer - Camden Town Hall meeting, Indymedia UK, 11 February 2004
Keith Parkins, Registered social landlords – the new corporations, Indymedia UK, 18 February 2004
Keith Parkins, Delivering the final death blow to Farnborough town centre, Indymedia UK, 2 July 2004
Keith Parkins, Misuse of Anti-Social Behaviour Orders, Indymedia UK, 5 July 2004
Keith Parkins, Audit Commission savage Pavilion Housing Association, Indymedia UK, 27 July 2004
Keith Parkins, Camden lashes out at opponents of council house sell off, Indymedia UK, 27 July 2004
Keith Parkins, Camden forced to back down, Indymedia UK, 30 July 2004
Pavilion criticised, Aldershot Mail, 27 July 2004
David Singleton, Nottingham reveals winning ALMO formula, Inside Housing, 29 July 2004
Karen Waller, Disgusted and astonished at Pavilion, letters, Surrey-Hants Star, 29 July 2004
Alan Walter, Let us decide, The Guardian, 29 June 2004