More than 200 people attended the inquiry held by the House of Commons council housing group, which took place in a series of packed committee rooms in parliament on Wednesday of last week.
Some 27 delegations of tenants, councillors, housing workers and trade unionists gave verbal evidence to the group’s MPs.
The inquiry focused on two main issues – the need for adequate and sustainable funding for the existing
2.5 million council homes, and the need to enable councils to build a new generation of first class council homes.
The inquiry also brought up a wider range of concerns, such as those of councillors who are frustrated at being unable to help people facing the crisis in housing.
Council officers and leaders from Stevenage reported that they want to keep their council housing and build more, but they are being pushed
towards stock transfer by current policies.
“The future of council housing in Stevenage is at risk, and we cannot meet the demand for new homes,” said councillor Ann Webb, the housing portfolio holder.
Similarly, tenants and councillors from East Devon said that with 4,300 homes, they could not meet the need of another 4,000 households on their waiting list.
There was much anger at the government’s use of the misnamed “subsidy system” to take vast sums from council tenants’ rent accounts.
But there was less agreement as to what answers we should seek from the government’s current review of council housing finance.
Some campaigners wanted to scrap the subsidy system altogether, so that their councils could keep all rent and spend it locally.
Others thought that some means of cross-subsidy should remain. They focused on the 98 percent of the negative subsidy claw-backs that go to service debt rather than help other councils.
Debt payments – which make up £1.2 billion of the £1.7 billion “daylight robbery” from council rent accounts annually – could be written off, or transferred to the national debt at no net cost to public finances.
Alan Walter, chair of Defend Council Housing (DCH), said that councils with “stand alone” housing finance would be vulnerable to stock transfer with little choice if officers got their business plans wrong.
Luke Henderson from Edinburgh pointed out that the burden of council housing debt remains. This is paid by fewer tenants as the number of houses has shrunk due to sell-offs and demolitions.
“Getting debt writen off is essential to getting a new generation of council housing,” he said.
Luke brought a “message of hope” from Scotland, where building new council houses is back on the agenda.
Anti-transfer campaigners have become housing executive members on several local authorities.
Several speakers emphasised that housing associations are threatened by the credit crunch. They argued that councils can now be the best source of new, secure and affordable rented housing.
Councils should be able to buy up any homes being repossessed and put builders to work building new council homes for those in housing need.
Tenants, trade unionists and councillors need to step up the pressure to turn the recent “warm words” from Gordon Brown and Margaret Beckett into a change of policy.
We should ask councillors and tenant reps to sign up to DCH’s five demands for 2009, and make sure that our MPs sign up to parliamentary Early Day Motion 355 on council house building.
For more go to » www.defendcouncilhousing.org.uk