New Labour’s plans to privatise council housing suffered a series of major setbacks in the run-up to Christmas. Defend Council Housing (DCH) campaigns run by council tenants and trade unionists fought off attempts to privatise housing in the east London borough of Tower Hamlets, Waverley in Surrey and Edinburgh.
Tenants in these three areas voted against transferring their houses to the private sector, despite councils offering bribes worth billions of pounds and pumping money into slick propaganda campaigns.
Edinburgh council spent over £5 million of taxpayers’ money attempting to convince tenants to back the sell-off. Tenants were told that £2 billion would have been made available to the housing association had the transfer gone ahead.
But, in one of the biggest council housing ballots to take place, involving 23,000 homes, 53 percent voted “no” to transfer.
Willie Black from Edinburgh was involved in the campaign. He said, “This was a real David against Goliath situation. Local people with nothing were pitted against the money and the propaganda from the council.
“Groups were set up by tenants in the summer, with people holding meetings, running stalls and petitioning — anything to get people talking through the issues.
“I think it helped that the council was already pretty unpopular. This was an incredible victory, which shows what ordinary tenants can achieve.
“We now have to fight for money from the government to ensure that council homes are maintained to a decent standard and that rents remain affordable.”
In the same week Tower Hamlets tenants voted against transfer in five out of seven separate ballots held across the borough. The vote on the Ocean estate, originally due to take place in November 2005 has now been postponed until this summer.
Local tenants argue that it has been postponed because the mood on the estate is against transfer. They say that the council should have run the ballot at the same time as the others or cancel it altogether.
The local Tenants Against Transfer group is demanding the council provide funding for repairs and improvements on estates, and back the campaign for direct investment in council housing as an alternative to stock transfer or other privatisation options.
Kay, a campaigner from the Cranbrook estate in Tower Hamlets, said, “People are seeing through the empty words, glossy pamphlets and hard sell. Once you see the blackmail, threats and dirty tricks it gives the game away.”
In Sefton, Merseyside, where council tenants had voted against transfer in September, the council disgracefully reballoted tenants. In the rerun ballot, which saw turnout fall from 70 percent to 55 percent, tenants voted in favour of transfer.
The council resorted to intimidation to secure victory. A letter sent to tenants stated, “I therefore give you notice not to enter any of the council’s tenants blocks with the intention of distributing leaflets.”
The DCH campaign has won some significant victories over the past few years. However, winning local ballots is only a start. Events in Sefton show that councils will try to rerun ballots that go against transfer.
These policies are being driven nationally by New Labour as part of their neo-liberal project of driving the free market into every aspect of our lives. Defeating them will require a national response.
DCH has organised a lobby of parliament for 8 February to draw together campaigners from around the country. Major trade unions have agreed to organise coaches for the lobby.
The lobby will be an important step forward in the campaign to force the government to give tenants a “fourth option” for housing — new investment in council housing — rather than the three versions of privatisation currently on offer.
For more information, and for details of transport to the lobby, go to www.defendcouncilhousing.org.uk