Link to this page: http://www.socialistparty.org.uk/issue/247/24830
Council Housing Under Attack
UNTIL 8 April, Birmingham city council are balloting all their 88,000 council tenant households on whether to transfer the housing stock to new private landlords. Glasgow has been balloting on the same issue. New Labour see these votes, in Britain's largest council landlords, as critical. CLIVE WALDER from Birmingham and ERIC STEVENSON from Glasgow City UNISON report on the fight against privatisation.
Birmingham: Vote "No" to housing transfers
IN BIRMINGHAM, the city council seem to be so scared of losing their ballot that they are resorting to crude threats to try to intimidate tenants into voting for transfer.
The government appointed Lord Falconer (famous for making a pig's ear of running the Millennium Dome) as their trouble-shooter. According to the Birmingham Evening Mail, tenants are effectively told to "hand over your homes or kiss goodbye to the money needed for quality repairs".
Falconer rules out using the council's existing housing debt for repair and renovation because the council "have a history of poor performance and would take some time to get to the standards required" and are unfit to receive extra government funding.
He blatantly says that if tenants reject stock transfer there's no extra government money for housing so tenants' only hope is transfer.
The government know how unpopular privatisation is, so they deny that stock transfer is privatisation, saying that the new landlords are Housing Associations, regulated by the Housing Corporation.
Yet the Housing Corporation has failed to take action in any case where landlords of ex-council housing break their rent-fixing formulas. And while the new landlords are 'not-for-profit' organisations, the banks that lend them the money certainly aren't.
They also claim that tenants will have more control over policy and service delivery because they have more than a third of places on the management board. With maths like that, no wonder Falconer failed so spectacularly at the dome!
Tenants' reps on the new boards undertake to make decisions consistent with the landlord's interests. In other words they don't represent tenants at all. That's why reps have already resigned from the shadow housing boards set up prior to stock transfer.
Falconer says that rents should reflect a property's location and condition. So new and city-centre properties will probably attract higher rents for possible conversion to yuppie accommodation in future. Nothing is said anywhere about tenants' ability to pay.
THE COUNCIL say that stock transfer will raise £1.25 billion for repair and renovation. Yet the council admit that between £2 billion and £4 billion is needed to bring all the city's housing stock up to acceptable standards.
Clearly not all the repairs will be done. Meanwhile tenants lose any accountability they had and rents will gradually go up to suit their fat-cat financiers.
In 1998, five estates in Birmingham's city centre were privatised. Within weeks, tenants were clamouring to return to council control. Some of those tenants pay up to £20 a week in service charges and on privatised Castle Vale, rents went up £16 a week last year.
In Coventry, the new landlords recently rewrote the tenancy agreement just a year after taking control of the council's housing. Any assurances from the council are worthless - they will no longer be the landlord and will have no influence over tenancy conditions.
Ironically, the New Labour government are changing public borrowing rules in 2004 so the council could borrow to fund large-scale building and modernisation.
Housing Associations borrow money at much higher rates of interest than councils and councils don't pay VAT on their building work. This will inevitably be reflected in rents. Social housing will be funded by private rather than public money if stock transfer goes ahead so housing policy, rent and repair levels will be decided by shareholders, not by public need.
If tenants vote 'No', the council would be unlikely to keep getting away with its current neglect of its housing as the public scandal would undermine the seats of many Labour councillors.
A 'No' vote should be used to get meaningful extra public funding for housing.
There is huge opposition to stock transfer. With a vigorous campaign which explains the facts, tenants can sink Blair's privatisation flagship without trace.
Glasgow - Keep Our Homes Public
GLASGOW CITY Council proposes to hand over all its council tenants to Glasgow Housing Association (GHA), in a huge stock transfer.
The Westminster government is writing off Glasgow's huge debt of £900 million (mostly from the post-war housing programme), while the Scottish Executive promises up to £800 million more in public finance.
These additional funds will partly fill the gaps in GHA's business plan, to satisfy the banks financing the project. So public money will help fill big business's coffers.
GHA have bombarded tenants with glossy material calling the stock transfer a "once in a lifetime offer" to improve Glasgow's housing and build new homes.
The publicity campaign, having already spent up to £5 million, is now in overdrive with adverts in newspapers and at bus stop shelters, leafleting tenants at home and council offices. How much more public money will be spent?
Write off the debts
Why can't the debt be written off with the houses remaining in public ownership? The council could then use the millions released from its rental income to modernise all its houses.
The extra money promised by the executive could also be used to build new homes. Communities could be transformed without needing the transfer. This should be the choice offered by the council.
Tenants could also have a greater say in running their homes and communities. The structures are already there - Tenants Associations and neighbourhood-based forums already exist.
Under the council we can at least remove our councillors at elections. Transfer to an unelected, unaccountable quango would cost millions from the public purse. Housing Associations (HAs) have done some good work over the years with grants made available to them, but the proposed privatisation is not acceptable.
Campaigners for a No vote have a vision of modernised publicly owned houses with affordable rents, within regenerated communities for future Glasgow residents.
The Glasgow Campaign for a 'No' Vote and the council's trade union campaign (supported by the STUC) are calling for tenants to vote 'No'.
If we succeed, this vote must be used to demand that the debt be written off and the democratically elected council along with its tenants be allowed to implement the vision which the tenants deserve.
The Socialist Says
- Build campaigns linking tenants and the trade unions to beat New Labour's council housing sell-offs.
- Bring the banks, finance and construction companies into public ownership, so councils' interest payments can be cancelled and their housing debts written off.
- For a massive programme of publicly funded, good quality, affordable homes under the control of tenants, local communities, trade unions and the working class as a whole.
Private Sector Failure
THE PRIVATE sector has failed to build affordable housing for those on lower or average incomes. In the last two decades, over two million council homes have been lost while only half a million housing association homes replaced them.
This has hit the availability of reasonably priced accommodation. In 1968, 414,000 new homes were built. Last year, in a post-war trough, even the capitalist builders themselves admit that only 162,000 were constructed.
Private homebuilders tend to concentrate on "executive estates" built on a speculative basis for those who can pay, rather than affordable housing for those in need.
In The Socialist 29 March 2002: