COUNCIL TENANTS in Camden, London, have dealt a major blow to the government's strategy to privatise council housing.
We have voted in a ballot by an overwhelming 77 percent against the Labour council setting up an Arm's Length Management Organisation (ALMO) to run its council homes.
An ALMO is the first step of a two-stage privatisation process, as the example of Westminster proves (see box). The government had earmarked £283 million for the Camden ALMO. Now we are demanding this money be given as direct investment in council homes.
The Camden result will send shockwaves through deputy prime minister John Prescott's department, which is in charge of housing. It will also rattle policy makers, local authorities and housing professionals who back the government's privatisation programme. It will give new confidence to tenants and trade unionists across Britain to resist similar blackmail to that which we faced.
When Labour was elected in 1997 it accelerated the Tory policy of straightforward privatisation of council homes, through what is known as stock transfer. This sells off council homes to housing associations.
The programme ran into determined opposition by tenants and trade unionists-and saw the creation of the national Defend Council Housing campaign.
Stock transfer could only go through after a ballot of tenants. In a series of major ballots tenants voted no. Tenants rejected the blackmail which said the only way we would get our homes repaired and improved was to accept privatisation, as the money wasn't there from the government.
We argued that the money was there if the government chose to spend it.
The most notable victory came in 2002, when tenants across Birmingham voted no to stock transfer. Faced with growing opposition the government tried to regain the initiative by coming up with ALMOs.
These involve setting up a private company to run housing, still owned by the council but ready for privatisation in a second stage.
The government tried to convince tenants there were only three choices if they wanted investment. These were stock transfer, ALMO or Private Finance Initiative schemes like those which have caused havoc in the NHS and schools.
Tenants in Camden have rejected this con trick and all the bullying and propaganda that came with it. We are demanding a "fourth option" of direct investment without strings to guarantee decent, affordable, secure and accountable council homes.
In Camden, when we heard the council was pushing for an ALMO we started campaigning to demand a fair and balanced debate and a ballot.
We won backing for this from tenants' organisations across the borough. We forced the council to agree to hold a ballot, but they broke a commitment to a "fair and balanced" debate.
In the run-up to the ballot they bombarded tenants with a weekly glossy direct mail shot, with pictures of the new kitchens and bathrooms the ALMO was supposedly going to deliver. This was backed up by full colour ads in the local press and exhibitions.
Their strategy was to talk up the benefits of an ALMO and to claim that there was no alternative. We had nothing like those resources. But we did have the tenants and the vital support of the local Unison council workers' union.
We worked with existing tenants' associations, where they existed, and teams of volunteers to get two issues of a four-page newspaper through every door. In each of the five districts of the borough we had a tenant and local Unison member organise to make sure we got the broadsheets distributed.
We had posters displayed on most estates, taped or stuck up with blu-tack, and they stayed up. Just as important was talking to people face to face. We ran street stalls and leafleted outside mosques and churches.
In the last weeks we made a big effort to leaflet parents outside primary schools, and this was really successful. We also toured the borough with a loudspeaker car. Our slogan was "No to ALMO-two-stage privatisation of council housing".
We have to build on our victory to not just say "No to privatisation" but to secure the investment we need. We have already written to demand a meeting with housing minister Keith Hill.
We want to insist the £283 million earmarked for the ALMO is now made available to the council direct to pay for improvements in our homes. We are planning a major public meeting and will be asking councillors, MPs and trade unionists to speak.
This is a national fight. Stock transfer is still being pushed in many areas. In lots of areas councils are going down the ALMO route. Councils where tenants face these threats include Macclesfield, Sedgefield, Preston, King's Lynn and West Norfolk, Tower Hamlets, Lambeth, Islington, Stafford, Teesdale and Ealing.
The Camden result will be a big headache for those pushing privatisation. We need to make sure we use it to inspire tenants and trade unionists around the country that this is a battle we can win.
Where we organise an effective broad-based campaign uniting tenants and, where possible, councillors and MPs, we can win.
At a national level Defend Council Housing will be working with the trade unions and the over 130 MPs who have backed the call for direct investment in council homes to step up the pressure on the government. We will probably call a national conference.
In every area tenants and trade unionists need to respond, push the local council to debate and invite a Defend Council Housing speaker, pass resolutions in tenants' and trade union meetings.
In Camden we still had some form of independent tenants' organisation. In too many places people have an incorporated structure of reps on boards, advisers and the like.
We need to reassert that real tenants' organisation means people organised independently and based on the estates. If we begin to do that with some urgency we can win this battle.
The government is not as strong as it pretends and is facing growing pressure. It's up to all tenants and trade unionists to step that up after this great victory in Camden.
For information and ideas go to www.defendcouncilhousing.org.uk or phone 020 7987 9989.
Campaign that can make them give way
AN OFFICIAL government report admits that housing in Britain is in crisis.
The Barker report late last year showed that in 2001 house building in Britain fell to the lowest level since the Second World War. Meanwhile the number of those forced into temporary, and usually substandard, accommodation has doubled to 93,000 people in the last eight years.
In many areas housing is unaffordable for ordinary working people and some middle class families too.
The Barker report shows that across England over two thirds of "new households" are unable to afford a mortgage. The obvious answer is to build decent, affordable council homes. But the Labour government is so committed to privatisation and the market it refuses to do this.
Cracks are beginning to appear, however. A growing number of councils and MPs and key housing policy makers are questioning the government's approach and arguing for direct investment in council housing.
Roy Irwin, head of housing inspection at the Audit Commission, told an MPs' committee before Christmas that "something is going to have to give" in the fight over housing "and I doubt it is the tenants' views".
A determined battle can make sure that the Labour government is forced to give way.
How far will ALMOs go?
THE GOVERNMENT claims its ALMO scheme for council homes is not a step to privatisation. That lie has been exposed by what is happening in Westminster.
In April 2002 Westminster was one of the first councils to set up an ALMO, called CityWest Homes. Now the council wants to hand ownership of three tower blocks from the ALMO to a private housing company, Stadium Housing Association.
Stadium's assistant chief executive Tim Holden boasted, "This is the first of its kind. We're testing the water to see how far we can go."
Tenants will get a chance to vote on the plan. But Westminster shows clearly that ALMOs are a Trojan horse to prepare the way for full privatisation.