Campaigners will descend on parliament on Tuesday of next week to lobby MPs as an inquiry takes place to hear evidence and amendments to the government’s Housing and Regeneration Bill.
Huge anger exists among ordinary people over housing.
Activists are demanding the “Fourth Option” of direct investment in council housing so that councils can build a “new generation of first class council housing with lower rents, secure tenancies and a landlord tenants can hold to account”.
This would be a solution to the housing crisis facing millions of people in Britain today.
Pressure from campaigners has forced Gordon Brown to look like he is listening and responding to the housing problems ordinary people face.
The inquiry, organised by MPs in the House of Commons council housing group, gives people a chance to have their say on the future of housing in Britain.
“The new housing bill presents both a threat and an opportunity,” Alan Walter, chair of the Defend Council Housing group, told Socialist Worker.
“In 2000 the government published a green paper which said it wanted to end council housing. But it’s still here and that’s because people have fought to keep it.”
The underfunding and sell-off of council housing under the Tories is a major contributor to today’s housing crisis.
But this has been deepened by New Labour’s commitment to neoliberalism and privatisation.
The government’s push to privatise council housing has been resisted by campaigns across the country.
In the last year, tenants in Brighton and Hove, Swansea, Tamworth, Oswestry in Shropshire and New Cross Gate in south east London have won “no” votes to stop the selling off of their council housing.
Campaigners who have won will join the lobby. But others will come from areas where housing has been sold off.
They will warn people about what happens when private companies get their hands on our housing.
Sunderland tenants voted to transfer housing stock to the Sunderland Housing Group (SHG), now known as Gentoo, in 2001.
It was the biggest transfer of homes in Britain – 36,000 homes were sold off for less than £7,000 each. Mike Thompson is an activist in Sunderland who opposed the sell-off.
He told Socialist Worker, “All the literature from the council said vote yes.
“The basic idea was – you can either let the houses rot or vote for the transfer and get modernisation.”
Michael Tansey was a Labour councillor in Sunderland when the stock transfer began in 2001.
“People were told that their homes were unsafe to live in, which was complete rubbish,” he told Socialist Worker. “Stock transfer was pushed as the only way to save the housing.”
The chief executive of SHG is Peter Walls. As director of housing at Sunderland council he had previously been central to pushing the stock transfer.
As a result of the transfer, his salary is estimated to have doubled. Meanwhile, tenants are still waiting to see the benefits that were promised.
“Some modernisation has happened, but the houses aren’t much different,” said Mike Thompson.
“We were promised that rents would be pegged to protect tenants – but the small print said that rents could go up if houses were modernised. Rents have risen by an average of 17 percent.
“Other estates have been demolished. We’re left with bulldozed landscapes and boarded up houses.”
On some estates, SHG announced demolition plans only to change its mind later, after some tenants had already sold up and left. SHG encouraged people who had bought their council homes to sell them to the company.
Steve Hanratty used to live on the Marley Potts estate and moved out when he heard, via the local newspaper, that SHG were going to demolish it.
“An SHG official told us that we should take our ‘window of opportunity’ to sell before it was too late,” said Steve.
“My house was independently valued – taking the demolition into account – at £68,000. SHG offered £50,000, and with various costs taken out I would have ended up with £44,000.”
After moving out of his home Steve discovered that the estate wouldn’t be demolished after all.
Steve said, “I was lucky as I had a decent job, but other people didn’t.
“People bought their houses with their redundancy payments after the Tories smashed our industries in the 1980s.
“I don’t like to see people being lied to. The lack of opportunities and facilities is causing racism. People blame immigrants, but it’s not their fault – it’s these moneygrabbers.”
Despite the government’s rhetoric, the Housing and Regeneration Bill pushes privatisation as a solution to the housing crisis.
It would provide Social Housing Grants to enable councils (and private companies) to build new homes.
But councils will only receive them if they set up “Arms Length Management Organisations” or “Special Purpose Vehicles” to build them. The plans would allow the transfer of more publicly owned land into private hands.
Defend Council Housing has had a serious impact in stopping housing privatisation in a number of areas and in forcing the government to rethink its rhetoric.
But the only way to get a real commitment to council housing is to keep on fighting.
Stopping the privateers
Sunderland Housing Group (SHG) has not had things all its own way. In 2005 it moved in on Sedgefield council to try and buy up council housing there.
Tenants built up a broad campaign to oppose the sell off, and activists from Sunderland came over to spell out the dangers of letting the SHG loose on housing.
Campaigners won a “no” vote. Over 58 percent voted to keep housing in council hands.
Last year a Defend Council Housing campaign in Swansea won a “no” vote of over 70 percent against the stock transfer of housing.
Malcolm Harrington, a Unison union branch officer in Swansea, told Socialist Worker, “Without the joint action of Unison and Defend Council Housing there would now be no council houses left in Swansea.”
Brighton and Hove tenants also rejected a proposed stock transfer last year, with a fantastic “no” vote of 77 percent. Jane Erin, the secretary of the local Defend Council Housing group, said there was “no feeling among tenants” for privatisation.
Join the lobby of MPs. Give evidence from 11am-6pm, Tuesday 22 January, House of Commons, Westminster tube. Rally with speakers 2-3pm and 6-8pm. For more information go to » www.defendcouncilhousing.org.uk