“We’re at a crossroads,” says Alan Walter, chair of Defend Council Housing (DCH). “The government is on the back foot and isolated, with a broad alliance supporting the ‘fourth option’—direct public investment in council housing.”
Alan Walter spoke as council tenants, housing activists, trade unionists and local councillors from across Britain were heading to London for the national conference of DCH. The conference will be held on Friday 29 October.
The conference comes at a crucial moment for the movement against housing privatisation.
DCH scored a significant victory last month when the Labour Party conference voted to oppose government policy on housing.
John Prescott, the deputy prime minister, has denied council tenants the fourth option until now. He had insisted they agree to transfer out of the public sector before receiving much-needed investment funds.
But DCH’s grassroots campaign, bringing together tenants, local councillors and Labour MPs, has forced Prescott to agree to a “level playing field” for council housing.
The campaign’s victory over New Labour’s privatisation agenda has now opened up what Alan Walter calls a “race against time”.
“The government knows it has to concede,” he says. “What they’re now trying to do is delay that decision and privatise as much housing as possible before the review takes place.
“Austin Mitchell MP has publicly called on local authorities to freeze their options appraisals until after Prescott’s review. You can’t tell tenants there are three options when Prescott has promised a fourth.”
And it is important to learn the lessons of housing privatisations already pushed through.
Dave Sherry, a housing worker from Glasgow, told Socialist Worker, “The promises that were made to tenants about work being done through the Glasgow Housing Association (GHA) have not materialised.
“The idea was to have a twin stage stock transfer—18,000 houses would be transferred to the GHA, which would then demolish some of them, build new ones, then transfer them on to other housing associations.
“What’s happened is that old blocks have been demolished, but the land has been filled with private housing.
“There have been some public houses built, but it’s at a very low rate. The budget for social rented housing is less than £60 million, and they didn’t even manage to spend that.
“That compares to £450 million spent to build the Scottish Parliament, so the money’s there.
“People were blackmailed into stock transfer here. We were told there wouldn’t be any investment otherwise. But the promises they made have been broken. This should be a warning for stock transfers in England.”
The DCH conference will include a series of workshops on arguments against privatisation and the case for the fourth option. This, says Alan, makes it all the more vital that as many council tenants take part as possible.
“We’re challenging local authorities to fund tenants to attend. Councils send tenants all round the country to be told why privatisation is so brilliant. But this is the only event where they will hear about the fourth option.”
Several councils, including Southampton and Dover, have already agreed to fund delegates from tenants’ associations to attend the DCH conference.
The conference boasts a main platform that includes MPs and trade union general secretaries such as Dave Prentis of Unison and Kevin Curran of the GMB.
Alan Walter stresses that where tenants have organised against privatisation they have won votes against sell offs—in Birmingham, Dudley, Wrexham and most recently in Camden:
“This is a campaign we can win, and it’ll be a major victory if we do. Ministers know they’re going to have to concede, and our job is to make sure tenants know that.”
'This conference is vital
John McDermott is the housing convenor for the Unison union in Leeds.
He is also a member of the Defend Council Housing national committee. He spoke to Socialist Worker about the 29 October national conference.
THE DCH national conference is of fundamental importance in the light of the Labour conference decision to support a level playing field for tenants.
Council tenants were being penalised for opposing privatisation.
DCH has been at the forefront of the campaign against this, together with trade unions and the tenants’ movement.
Now we have won the fourth option. It’s important that we exploit this.
Some local authorities keen to privatise are now thinking, “We need to get on with this quickly.”
Others that don’t want to privatise will hang back.
Tenants’ groups need to find out what’s going on and bring the information back to where they live.
Everybody should go to the DCH conference—it’s absolutely vital.