Defending council housing
Battle lines are drawn
"COUNCIL Housing Set to Disappear Within A Decade", warned the Financial Times last week. It was one of a rash of press articles over the future of council housing. The spark was a leak from government spin doctors last month that they plan a "big bang" to drive through the wholesale privatisation of council housing.
Already New Labour has privatised more council homes in three years than the Tories did in18 years. This year 25 local councils plan to hand over another 300,000 council homes to housing associations and new private housing companies. The government plans to keep up that pace until all 3.2 million council homes are in private hands.
New Labour argues that the money simply is not there for local councils to do the �20 billion of repairs and refurbishments needed. The only answer, they say, is to turn to private companies which can raise money from the City. Even housing charity Shelter, which won a deserved reputation campaigning on housing issues under the Tories, has swallowed the spin.
In a special issue of its Roof magazine this month it talks of "an inevitable trend towards mass transfer" of council homes to private companies. Yet far from the fight over council housing being over, it is only just getting under way. Already there are clear signs that New Labour's mass privatisation plans could come dramatically unstuck. Tenants, trade unionists and even many Labour councils are increasingly mounting opposition.
Eight councils announced a campaign last week to fight the government over council housing privatisation. The eight, all in the Midlands, are demanding the government changes the Tory-imposed rules which prevent councils from spending or raising the money needed to maintain council homes. Leader of Labour-run Worcester City council David Barlow says the eight councils will be lobbying the government as the plan to transfer housing "strikes at the very core" of councils like his.
The other councils involved are Cannock Chase, Bridgenorth, Bromsgrove, Redditch, North Warwickshire, Wellingborough and Stafford. A recent Housing Today magazine survey found that 70 percent of Labour council housing chairs want to keep council housing. Tenants should be demanding more Labour councils join the Midlands eight. They should also demand that Labour councils and candidates come out against housing privatisation in the run up to May's local council elections.
BEFORE any privatisation can go ahead tenants have to approve it in a ballot. The privateers and the councils backing them spend millions persuading tenants to vote yes. A key argument they use is that rents will be guaranteed for a period of at least five years. They say rents will be limited to rise by at most 1 percent above inflation each year. Yet a survey by the government's Housing Corporation quango shows this to be a lie. Some 12 major housing associations which have already taken over council homes have simply ignored this limit and jacked rents up. High Weald housing association heads the list with a 12.09 percent rise, instead of the 5.7 percent maximum under the "inflation plus one" formula. Other housing associations which have breached the limit are Peddars Way, Ealing Family, Bedfordshire Pilgrims, Sovereign, South Warwickshire, South Staffordshire, Jephson Homes, Tonbridge and Malling, Westlea, and East Thames. The Housing Corporation has allowed the rent rises to go ahead. The reason is simple, according to Housing Today magazine. The associations "have been allowed to hike rents to honour loan commitments". In other words, tenants are paying the interest demanded as profit by the City money men behind the associations and the council house privatisations.
TOWER HAMLETS council in east London has been one of the pioneers of council housing privatisation. The New Labour council has already pushed through the privatisation of 5,500 homes, and talked of transferring all 13,000. But the council has also been defeated in several key ballots by a determined local campaign.
Now a panel of councillors looks like throwing in the towel. A leaked council report recommends that no further transfers are undertaken until it is clear how the ones already completed have worked out. However this is dressed up, it would be a major retreat by a pioneer New Labour council. Mark Weeks of Defend Council Housing and the local anti-privatisation campaign says, "This could be very significant. It shows when you fight you can get results."
THE PRIVATEERS tell us that housing associations and the new private housing companies wanting to take over council homes are "not for profit". They even call themselves "Registered So cial Landlords". In fact, a new official survey of 353 such companies last week reported that they had made a massive �7 billion "surplus" from tenants' rents.
DEFEND Council Housing is a national campaign. It plans a series of regional meetings.
- North West: Manchester, Saturday 15 April. 10.30am-4pm, Friends Meeting House, Mount Street. Contact 0161 226 5820. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or write to DCH Manchester, c/o 26 Fairlawn Close, M14 4GQ.
- Yorkshire and North East: Barnsley, Saturday 7 May, 12 noon-5pm, Barnsley Central Library.
- Defend Council Housing, c/o Haggerston TA, 179 Haggerston Road, London E8 4JA. Phone 020 7254 2312. Fax 020 7538 2113. Website: www.defendcouncilhousing.org.uk