Decisive battles are set to take place. They are part of a hidden war waged by the New Labour government. It is a war to destroy one of the pillars of the welfare state-council housing. New Labour is out to privatise three million council homes. In Birmingham tenants will begin to vote on 18 March on whether their homes are handed to private housing associations.
Council tenants in Glasgow start voting on 4 March. Councils are trying to persuade tenants that privatisation is the only way to get the repairs and refurbishment their homes and estates desperately need. You will hardly read about the battle over council housing in the mainstream press, but across the country it is a key issue facing working class people. Glasgow and Birmingham are the two biggest council landlords in Britain. Both are Labour run. The ballots in just those two cities will involve almost 200,000 people.
Bradford is also planning a ballot in the next few weeks. And a ballot of 28,000 council tenants starts this week on possible privatisation in east London's Tower Hamlets. Major campaigns against the privatisation drive have made the government panic in recent months.
Tenants have beaten off privatisation, winning important victories in Dudley and Southwark. The national Defend Council Housing conference was held in Birmingham last weekend. Some 85 organisations, mainly tenants groups but also trade union branches, were there from across England and Wales.
The opening session heard from David Williams, a Birmingham Labour councillor who is fighting the New Labour city council's privatisation plan. He attacked 'the 'modernisers', people in the Labour movement who are using their position to put forward policies opposed to the interests of working people.
'The council here is not confident it is going to win. If we win here it will deal the government's whole national policy a severe blow.' The biggest applause in the opening rally went to Mick Graham, national officer for public services in the GMB trade union.
He expressed the bitterness most of the audience felt at Tony Blair's attack: 'I bring you greetings from the GMB, one of the wreckers' organisations,' Mick began. He reminded delegates of how bad things were under the years of Tory government. Then he said simply, 'But it is even worse under this government. We are talking about the wholesale destruction of municipal housing and public services. The wreckers are in government. They are obsessed with privatisation and they detest democratic local councils. Last year my union commissioned a Mori poll on privatisation which showed that only 11 percent of people thought it was a good idea. I remind you that a similar poll in 1990 found only 23 percent thought Thatcher's poll tax was a good idea. The message to the prime minister is clear-your privatisation agenda is even less popular than Thatcher's poll tax, and that was her Achilles' heel and led to her downfall. We need decent, affordable housing in this country. The GMB will work with any organisation that fights to defend public services. We are totally opposed to the privatisation of public services for the profit of the few.'
Campaign grows for 'NO' vote against the biggest landlords
Alan Walter of the national steering committee of Defend Council Housing chaired the conference. He spelt out what privatisation would mean: 'Take three articles from the latest issue of the housing professionals' magazine Inside Housing. One showed that the rate of evictions in Registered Social Landlords [the government's name for private housing companies taking over council homes] has gone up by 14 percent in two years. Another showed that 46 percent of these landlords breached the official guidelines on rent rises last year. So much for the promises that rents will be limited after transfer. A third article revealed the government has ditched a measure of how the homeless are treated from its index of Best Value in assessing services. This comes a month after the housing charity Shelter raised concerns at what was happening to the homeless after transfer of council homes.'
Deidre Leonard from Newcastle said, 'I've been a council tenant for 31 years.Taking a stand for council housing is about a human right to have a decent, affordable house.'
Aysen Dennis is the chair of the tenants' campaign which recently won a major victory against privatisation on Southwark's Aylesbury estate. She shared the lessons of their fight: 'We did some simple things well. We made sure everyone got the arguments. We ran stalls and we leafleted every door. In 11 weeks we got 12 different leaflets through everyone's door. We knocked on doors and spoke to people. In the end we won, and the number of people who voted no on the estate was more than have voted altogether in any election, either council or general elections.'
Conference workshops were held on campaigning, and the links between council house privatisation and the GATS deal pushed by the World Trade Organisation.
One of the key sessions was on the fight to win next month's ballot in Birmingham. Dave Briscoe is a tenant who had been on one of Birmingham council's local boards set up to push through privatisation. He and several other tenants have recently resigned and joined Saturday's meeting.
'We resigned because we couldn't see any way of delivering the improvements that they promised unless rents rose massively. That's why I'm joining you today,' said Dave.
Local trade unionists are playing a key role in the campaign, and the meeting heard from Unison's Tracey Twist about how her union branch 'was proud to be part of this fight'. Local councillors and Labour MP for Birmingham Selly Oak Lynne Jones also addressed the meeting.
She said, 'I hope there will be a no vote in Birmingham. I've been out door knocking. There is an alternative to transfer. It is to vote no and challenge the government to deliver its promise to bring all council housing up to a decent standard.'
The Birmingham campaign has a major series of public meetings planned across the city in the run-up to the ballot. It has also produced some 30,000 car stickers, and has hired a battlebus for ten days.
That needs to be built on with massive postering across the city to get the message over. This can spark people on every estate leafleting, and talking to their friends and neighbours. If that is done the fight can be won in Birmingham, Glasgow and elsewhere.
Building unity in Oldham
Applause greeted Richard Searle from Manchester. He told the conference of plans to defend council housing in Oldham as part of the fight to beat back the Nazi BNP. The BNP plans to stand in the town in May's council elections. The local council is pushing privatisation of council homes.
'The BNP issued a statement saying it supports the fight against privatisation of council housing,' said Richard. 'Our campaign to defend council housing is about unity-unity of black, Asian and white, of gay and straight, of men and women. Poverty and bad housing breed the despair the BNP feed off. We are approaching the unions to build a coalition to defend the right to decent, affordable housing, and in the process help to stop the Nazis dividing people.'
- Housing association rents are 16 percent higher on average than council rents.
- Housing associations' eviction figures are 12 percent higher than councils'.
- The government is writing billions of pounds of councils' housing debts off if they privatise. Why can't that be done if tenants want to stay with the council, to free up money for repairs and refurbishments?