The government is in disarray over its plans to privatise council housing, and the chance is there to pile on the pressure to force a complete retreat. A marvellous opportunity to intensify the campaign comes in just over a week, when tenants and council workers join forces for a major lobby of parliament. Already coaches are booked from across Britain to bring people to London for the mass lobby on Wednesday 24 January.
Everywhere people should take the government's disarray as a signal to pull out all the stops to build the numbers who will join the protest. The government signalled a major retreat just before Christmas, issuing a 'consultation paper' on what it calls 'arms length companies'. The plan is a panicked reaction to the growing opposition to its drive to privatise council housing.
It promises extra public funding to local councils if they set up separate 'arms length companies' to run council housing, but which are '100 percent' controlled by local councils. It also promises tenants will remain 'secure' council tenants.
The contrast with government talk a year ago is stark. Then New Labour spin doctors were talking of 'the end of council housing' and privatising all remaining 3.2 million council homes in Britain over the next decade. In some areas they have successfully pushed local councils to hand over homes to private housing companies.
But from small beginnings the opposition has grown, and has rattled New Labour. In key areas campaigners have won ballots of tenants and succeeded in scuppering privatisation plans.
In the last few months privatisation plans have been sunk in Waverley, Wycombe, Barnsley and Southwark (the second biggest planned privatisation in England). In Glasgow, the biggest planned privatisation, the New Labour council has repeatedly postponed a planned tenants' ballot for fear it will lose. The same has happened in Walsall.
In Birmingham, the biggest planned privatisation in England has split the ruling Labour group on the council down the middle. Now a wide range of forces has come together behind this month's lobby of parliament. Dozens of tenants' organisations, including the national TAROE organisation in England, are backing the lobby.
So too is the important Daylight Robbery campaign, which has fought over the way council tenants are ripped off over housing benefit, effectively paying twice over through their rent and general taxes towards the cost. A key player in the fight so far has been the Defend Council Housing organisation, which is also backing the lobby.
All the key unions with members in local councils' housing departments have now thrown their weight behind the lobby and are organising transport. UNISON has produced some 100,000 leaflets for the lobby. The building workers' UCATT union, and the GMB and TGWU unions are also officially backing the lobby.
The government is manoeuvering under pressure, making some concessions to buy off opposition. No one should be fooled. The chance is now there to build the fight and win a complete victory.
Lobby 24 Jan
The lobby to defend council housing takes place from 1-5pm on Wednesday 24 January. Local campaigners will be speaking at a rally in Westminster Central Hall, near parliament, from 1pm.
From 2.15-3.15pm there will be a rally with keynote national speakers. Among the key speakers in that rally are George Brumwell, general secretary of UCATT, Dave Prentis, general secretary of UNISON, and Alan Walter of Defend Council Housing.
The rally will be chaired by Labour MP Austin Mitchell, who is one of dozens of MPs who have now backed the demand for an end to privatisation. At 3.30pm people will cross the road to parliament to lobby MPs. In every area people should write to their local MP to tell them they will be coming to lobby them.
For more information, leaflets, etc, contact Defend Council Housing, PO Box 33519, London E8 4XW. Phone 020 7275 9994 or fax 020 7254 2312. firstname.lastname@example.org www.defendcouncilhousing.org.uk
The government is now proposing that instead of handing council homes to private companies in what it calls stock transfer, another option is possible for local councils. It says they can instead set up 'arms length companies' to manage homes. These are still 'companies' and legally separate from the council. But 'ownership of the housing stock should remain with the local authority, and the local authority should remain the legal landlord'. In addition, the 'arms length companies' 'will be 100 percent controlled by the authority'.
Under stock transfer to a private housing company tenants would lose their existing 'secure tenancies' and become instead 'assured tenants' with far less rights.
Now the government says that under the 'arms length' plan 'tenants should remain secure tenants of the authority. 'There should be no change in their rights.' Up until now a key argument pushed by the government has been that it does not have the money to give local councils the resources they would need to repair, refurbish and build council homes.
It has argued therefore that privatisation is the only way to get extra money in. Now it has admitted that it does have the money. 'Additional resources' will be 'made available' from public funds to local councils, which will then agree with the 'arms length company' how that will be spent.
The government says it will put in extra money directly and also allow local councils to borrow money, as long as the cash is handed to the 'arms length company'.
Keep on fighting
There is no doubt the 'arms length' plan is a major retreat by the government and a testament to everyone who has argued, leafleted and campaigned in defence of council housing. But it is also an attempt to buy off opposition by making concessions while still preparing for a possible drive to full scale privatisation later if campaigning dies down.
The government is still hoping to organisationally and legally separate housing management and provision from local councils. It would be simple at some point to then build on this separation to go the whole hog and transform the 'arms length companies' into fully fledged private companies.
The government insists that its 'Best Value' regime will apply to all 'arms length companies', which could mean privatisation. Campaigners should demand the government abandons its plans for privatisation completely.
If tenants are to keep secure council tenancies, if the council has '100 percent' control and if the money is coming from public funds, why not simply allow councils to have that extra money themselves and pump it into existing council housing?
Unions and tenants' organisations are mobilising for the 24 January lobby. The UCATT, UNISON and GMB unions are all putting on coaches, sometimes jointly with tenants' federations.
Just before Christmas a national meeting of some 15 tenants' federations met and enthusiastically backed the lobby, and they are organising to build transport. Henry Rajch is a GMB member in Barnsley, and has played a leading role in organising the successful local campaign to stop council housing privatisation:
'There are two coaches coming from Barnsley for the lobby, one organised by the GMB and another by the TGWU and UCATT, and another coach from Rotherham, all with tenants and trade unionists on board. Our GMB union is officially backing the lobby and has said that there is money for transport. Everywhere people should move now to approach local union branches, and make sure the transport is booked and people get on the coaches.'