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Stop the privatisation of council housing
THE CRISIS in housing has been called a time bomb under working-class people's living standards.
Housing costs have soared by 53 times over the period since the second world war, that's twice as fast as the average rise in consumer prices.
The rate of increase has accelerated in recent years, made worse by successive governments abandoning of public-sector housing. LOIS AUSTIN writes.
A RECENT Shelter report on overcrowded households slammed the government's housing policies. Half a million families live in cramped conditions, in tiny one- and two-bedroom flats. They might wait to transfer to a larger property for years, with children sleeping in baths and on floors in halls and kitchens.
Families live in conditions reminiscent of the Victorian era. Overcrowding seriously affects children's health, education and development. One mother said: "My daughter suffers severe asthma attacks due to overcrowding. Every month she misses one, two or three weeks from her schooling."
The government's response to this crisis is not to invest in and build much-needed council housing but to force through privatisation of council estates and make home ownership the focus of their housing policy. They plan to build 1.1 million homes over the next ten years, almost all for home ownership with a small percentage built by housing associations.
Home ownership is not an option for many working-class families. In 1990 a first-time buyer paid around 2.5 times their annual income to buy their first home. They now have to pay four times their salary - far higher in London and other property 'hot-spots'.
The government writes about 'mixed communities' with predominantly home ownership, market renting and some housing association (HA) homes, and talks of creating an 'urban renaissance'. Such jargon should be treated with scepticism.
Councils and other social housing landlords use this mantra to justify privatising council housing and selling HA homes. For many working-class communities fighting to preserve council housing, 'mixed communities' means 'destroying' communities.
The idea behind 'mixed tenure' is that bringing a 'higher class' of tenant or home-owners onto housing estates with predominantly poor and working-class families, stops these communities becoming 'sink' areas that can't be regenerated. Housing campaigners rightly call this policy social cleansing.
Who's to blame for letting estates and communities fall into disrepair with bad housing and massive social problems? It's the government and local authorities, who haven't invested in council housing, public services and jobs. These issues need to be addressed if genuine regeneration is to take place.
The well-off are the ones benefiting from recent regeneration programmes. Alienation increases as the poor are priced out of an area. The more affluent newcomers are not always interested in local schools or community centres, so an area becomes two-tier - posh restaurants and coffee shops for the wealthy and run-down facilities for everyone else.
Regeneration New Labour-style is designed to drive out the working class and poor, particularly in desirable inner-city locations and bring in the wealthy.
New Labour's pro-market approach aims for wholesale privatisation of council housing and the break-up of other social housing. The government's main method for privatising council housing is through stock transfers to housing associations (HAs). One community under siege from New Labour's privatisation is Aylesbury Estate in Southwark.
This community, however, has fought back against the sell-off of their estate to a housing association and a 'land grab' by private developers. In a ballot 73% of Aylesbury estate tenants voted to oppose privatisation and remain council tenants. This victory raised the confidence of all housing campaigners around the country.
Similar victories were won in tenant ballots in Sedgefield - Blair's constituency -and in many other areas such as Edinburgh and west Lancashire. There is huge innate hostility to privatisation of council housing amongst working class people.
Campaigners must build on this hostility to develop a national movement to permanently stop privatisation. As Aylesbury and other campaigns show, councils try repeatedly to push through privatisation even when tenants vote no, sometimes balloting tenants repeatedly until they come up with the right answer.
Last August, on a 68% turnout, 55% of council tenants in Sefton on Merseyside voted against their homes being transferred to housing association control. Sefton council ordered a re-run. It sacked two anti-transfer union officials and even threatened "No" campaigners with court action for leafleting tenants on the council's estates! Then they announced that tenants had voted narrowly, on a lower turnout, for transfer.
Similarly Southwark council, now Liberal Democrat-run, ignored the Aylesbury ballot result and tried every trick in the book to force through privatisation. They claim they've no money to improve things, that the estate is in such bad condition that the only option is to decant tenants - where to nobody knows - demolish the estate and hand over the rebuild to a HA.
No provision is made to rehouse those who want to remain council tenants in council homes. The Aylesbury campaign 'Tenants First' is working out its strategy to stop demolition.
Nationwide, housing campaigns face the same problem. In areas where councils were knocked back from 'stock transfer' plans, they try to con tenants with proposals for ALMOs (arms length management organisations) and other unelected, unaccountable quangos.
Tenants are rightly suspicious of ALMOs which take decision-making away from tenants, remove the power to hold the council to account over its running of council housing and are a step to full-scale privatisation.
HOUSING ASSOCIATIONS operate like businesses and treat tenants accordingly. Steve Howlett, chief executive of Peabody Trust, one of Britain's biggest HAs, has admitted: "Peabody is just like Sainsbury's". They plan to sell 1,100 homes, 3% of their stock, on the open market over the next few years. The Guinness Trust is doing the same.
HAs had sold so many homes in areas of high demand for social housing that Westminster council, not renowned for its commitment to social housing, pleaded with Peabody and Guinness Trusts not to sell any more homes in their borough!
New Labour changed the law to let trusts and charities change their original statutes. This enabled Peabody and other trusts to sell properties privately that previously could only be used for social housing purposes.
Council tenants facing transfer to a housing association should be informed that handing council homes to HAs puts them directly on a conveyor belt of privatisation, potentially to be sold outright on the open market. As the Save Peabody Homes campaign can witness, these homes are landing - via public auctions - directly into private landlords' greedy hands.
The pre-council housing days of tenants being exploited by private landlords in overcrowded, shabby, rented accommodation are returning. Peabody flats are market-rented and a one-bedroom flat near the Thames will cost you £250 a week. Some tenants are crowding into market-rented flats so as to club together to pay the extortionate rent.
We must campaign to stop the selling of HA homes. It's not council housing and HA tenants don't have the same rights as council tenants, but these homes have a protected rent which many working-class people benefit from.
Through government and local authority grants, HAs have had a lot of public money. Selling homes directly on the open market is transferring assets and wealth from the public sector into private hands. Campaigns to defend council housing must fight alongside housing association tenant campaigners.
THE DECENT Homes Standard (DHS) is a government guideline for council and social housing landlords, outlining the condition homes must meet by 2010. Housing campaigners obviously want homes improved, but the DHS gives councils and housing associations the excuse to say they can't afford to meet this standard.
Local authorities and HAs across the country hugely exaggerate the DHS's cost as an excuse to sell off their council stock. As Mark Weeks, a Defend Council Housing national committee member says: "We will not trade secure, affordable, accountable housing for a new sink or bathroom. We demand both!"
The government know council and social housing landlords can't afford to meet the standard. Housing campaigners must demand that the government plugs the deficit and gives councils and HAs the money they need. We call for the government to pay for wholesale investment in council homes to make them fit for the 21st century!
We need a fighting strategy to defend council housing. These campaigns need to be linked, with plans to stand local 'defend council housing' and anti-privatisation candidates in May's local elections.
The establishment parties can't be trusted to safeguard council housing. Some Labour and Liberal Democrat councils say they support giving tenants the 'fourth option' in transfer ballots of maintaining council housing. Last year after pressure from local tenants, Greenwich council in south London voted to keep control of its housing stock, rather than hand it over to HAs.
Blair's government has told many councils that such independence would debar them from getting housing improvements approved. But in December, the government wrote to Greenwich, giving its formal approval for the council's plan to invest more than £200 million in housing improvements. If all councils had stood up to Blair, the government's blackmail would have been called.
However, we cannot relax the pressure on these councils as their national parties will try to press-gang them into pushing ahead with privatisation.
House building programme
As with all struggles to defend working people's living conditions, we must rely on our strength and our organisations. Local housing campaigns, trade unions and tenants organisations should unite locally and nationally to defend council housing.
A more general housing movement is also needed, which can unite all tenants in a campaign to defend council housing, and also struggle to improve the Dickensian housing conditions which thousands experience in the private and public sector.
Under capitalism there is a constant struggle for affordable public housing. Good-quality council housing took working-class people out of the clutches of private landlords and freed them from relying on charities and philanthropists to provide low-cost secure housing.
The Socialist Party not only campaigns to keep these essential social gains but also puts forward a massive house-building programme to meet a growing public need.
The Socialist Party says
- Defend council housing!
- End the privatisation of council housing now, including stock transfer, PFIs, arms' length management organisations (ALMOs) and other unelected, unaccountable quangos.
- A tenants' vote on any proposed changes which must include the 'fourth option' of maintaining council housing. Equal funding for tenants' organisations and campaigns.
- No more excuses from local councils. The government should totally fund the reaching of the Decent Homes Standard.
- High quality council housing for all - decent, affordable, secure and accountable.
- A massive programme of public-sector house-building to provide everyone with a decent home while protecting the environment.
- Democratic public ownership of the giant construction corporations, banks and finance companies. Cancel all local authority debts and give mortgage holders low-interest loans.
Britain's slippery housing 'ladder'
THE GOVERNMENT'S latest five-year strategy for housing, Sustainable Communities: Homes for All, spelt out its key priority for housing: an increase in home ownership.
At present 71% of Britain's households are home owners, one of Europe's highest levels of home ownership. But the government is not satisfied and aims to create a million more home-owners by 2010. It is encouraging second and third home ownership for those who are wealthy and partial home ownership for those who aren't. Housing is seen as a vehicle for accumulating wealth rather than as a place to live.
For those on low incomes, a plethora of schemes encourage owner-occupation such as the Right to Buy, the Right to Acquire and Social Homebuy. There are shared ownership schemes which allow tenants to buy their homes in stages. The usual image is one of a 'housing ladder', where you move upwards from renting to owning a small home, then to owning a bigger home.
Home ownership for the poor is justified by an argument that there is an uneven spread of housing wealth in Britain; home owners have choice, security and opportunity; those who don't own their homes generally have much less choice, security and opportunity; so to stop poor people missing out, they need to be turned into home owners.
However, the housing ladder analogy is far from correct. Over the past year, there has been a 60% increase in possession orders made against home-owners who could not pay their mortgages. That figure for London is 81%. A report by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation shows that half the poor are owner-occupiers.
But there is a notorious lack of public subsidy available to help home-owners who fall on hard times. Only 6% of all housing subsidy helps owner-occupiers with their housing costs. There is no help to pay for service charges or repairs. The government's five year plan merely calls on insurance companies to offer 'more flexible' packages to the poor.
If only the government were as creative in its endeavours to provide low cost, secure rented housing as it has been in its drive to encourage home ownership, then many young and working-class people would not be facing housing problems.
However, this government has failed to abolish the Right to Buy, is demolishing council and housing association homes in many parts of the country and is committed to the private ownership of housing. We should have no illusions in New Labour's plans to provide Homes for All.
In The Socialist 12 January 2006: