This month sees key battles in a largely unreported war over the future of one of the pillars of the welfare state. Tenants of Britain's two biggest landlords, Birmingham and Glasgow councils, will vote on New Labour plans to hand their homes to private housing companies. Thousands of tenants in Crewe are already voting in a similar ballot, and Bradford council tenants will also vote this month.
In the coming year hundreds of thousands more tenants face ballots. The fight over the future of council housing has attracted little attention in the mainstream media. But it is causing passionate debate in working class communities. The turnout in ballots on council house privatisation is always far higher than for any local election.
The battle cuts to the heart of New Labour's wider agenda for what it calls 'reform' of public services, but which is in reality privatisation. The tenant-led Defend Council Housing organisation has grown to be a major national body.
Dozens of Labour MPs, hundreds of councillors and many people who have always looked to Labour are furious with the assault on council housing. The main unions with members in local council housing departments-Unison, Ucatt, the GMB and the TGWU-all back the fight to defend council housing.
Campaigns uniting tenants and trade unionists have achieved some real successes. There have been important victories in places like Southwark and Dudley. But the battles being waged now, above all in Birmingham and Glasgow, will be decisive in the outcome of the war.
Challenge the logic of profit
COUNCIL HOUSING is one of the pillars of the welfare state. In the 1950s and 1960s, when Britain was a much poorer country than now, both Tory and Labour governments boasted about how many hundreds of thousands of new council homes they built.
But in the 1980s Margaret Thatcher's Tory government effectively banned council house building and pushed people to become mortgage payers. For many the dream of 'owning your own home' meant an endless struggle to keep up payments-a struggle which all too often ended in repossession. Many people hoped New Labour would reverse the assault. Instead it has deepened the attack.
During five years in office Labour has privatised more council houses than the Tories did in the previous 18 years. In some areas, such as in northern industrial cities, there are tens of thousands of empty homes. They stand empty because the madness of the market means there are no jobs in those areas.
Elsewhere, such as London and the south east, ordinary people are priced out of housing. The answer is to challenge the logic of the market. Above all it means using public funds to build quality, affordable council homes to meet the needs of working people.
The Socialist Alliance will be fighting in May's local elections on exactly that platform, and throwing its weight behind the fight to defend and improve council housing.
Promises prove to be false
'LIKE MANY tenants I believed transfer was the only way to get money for our homes. I thought nothing could be worse than Hackney council. Tenants in Hackney are now paying the price for the policy of housing director David Thompson. Tenants in Birmingham are next in line, as Thompson is pushing through the transfer there now. They promised us local democracy and control, but in reality the business plan decides what happens. If my new landlord finds out I've spoken at this conference I'll be sacked as a tenant rep on the board.'
Tenant on an estate which had been privatised in Hackney, east London
'WHEN COSTS overran after transfer the housing association started 'modelling' how much they could raise by selling off flats or market renting them at £215 a week for a one-bed house. That is what is likely to happen. We already know on the Hillside estate that most of it is set to be sold off.'
Nick Strauss, tenant rep on another transferred Hackney estate
Support on the doorstep
'WE'VE BEEN out all over the city-tenants and trade unionists together. We aim to get to all 88,000 homes. We've postered, leafleted, held meetings and spoken to people on the doorstep.' That's how Birmingham tenant activist Pat Morrin described the campaign to win a no vote in this month's ballot. The vote begins on 18 March, four days after a similar ballot gets under way in Glasgow.
Pat was speaking last Thursday as tenants, along with activists from Birmingham council's Unison union, headed out for another day of leafleting on the city's estates. Tracey Twist, Unison branch chair, is one of those energetically driving the campaign. 'The council has spent millions on the transfer. They spent £173,000 on sending out videos to all 88,000 tenants. But we are getting the message through. At every meeting and on the doorsteps we find people back our arguments.'
Tracey argued that one great worry campaigners have is that the privatisation plan will create a homelessness crisis in a city with a council home waiting list already 14,000 strong:
'They plan to demolish 25,000 homes, more than one in four. Where will all those people go? They don't have plans to build new housing for them.' The government says the only way to get desperately needed investment into council housing is to go to the private sector.
Yet it is writing off councils' housing debts if they privatise. This could amount to a £12 billion handover of public money nationally. If that public money is available, why can't it be given to councils?
Birmingham day of action, Saturday 23 March. Meet 11am outside New Street station, Birmingham.
They push sell-offs and then make a fortune from privatisation
THE GOVERNMENT claims it is not privatising council housing. It says housing associations and new housing companies are 'not for profit', and labels them 'Registered Social Landlords'.
These private companies do make a profit. They just call it 'surplus' instead. The fat cats who head them make sure they get a good slice of that profit. Anchor Trust's John Belcher heads the list, grabbing £162,000. Next in the league comes David Cowan of Places for People, who is on £133,101. Not far behind are Home Group's Malcolm Levi on £126,058 and Quadrant's Don Wood on £117,000.
A particularly obscene feature of the new housing companies set up to take over council homes is the way top council managers push privatisation and then become chief executives of the new companies.
Steve Stride was a council housing manager in Tower Hamlets in east London. He pushed for tenants to agree to their homes being handed to a private housing company, Poplar Harca. Stride became Harca's chief executive, and grabbed a whopping pay rise to £78,000. Stride's chum David Edgar was the chair of Harca's board. Edgar is also a New Labour councillor now pushing the privatisation of the rest of Tower Hamlets' council homes, many to Harca.
Behind the housing associations which grab council housing stand a handful of top banks. Just three-the Royal Bank of Scotland, Nationwide and Halifax-are behind over 75 percent of all council housing transfer schemes.
These banks demand profit in the form of interest, which comes straight from tenants' rents. That's why housing association rents are on average 16 percent higher than council rents.
New Labour claims that rents are guaranteed not to go up by more than 1 percent above inflation for five years after transfer. They say nothing about what happens after five years. And last year 55 percent of housing associations ignored the official guidelines and increased their rents by more.
All the transfers see council tenants lose their existing 'secure tenancies' for much worse 'assured tenancies'-the key difference being easier eviction. Housing association evictions are 12 percent higher than councils.