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LET US DECIDE - the case for council housing (Liverpool has 21,000 remaining)

Kai Andersen - Poster of article | 30.07.2004 17:00 | Health | Repression | Social Struggles | Liverpool

LET US DECIDE (from Guardian 29th June 2004)

Tenants have the right to affordable, secure housing that is provided by the council - not private companies

Tenants all round Britain are intent on defending council housing against a government dogmatically committed to privatisation. Decent, affordable, secure and accountable housing provided by the local council has served generations well. And contrary to myth, it pays for itself - if all the money it brings in is reinvested. In Camden, my rent for a three bedroom flat is £85 per week. In the wake of the right to buy policy, the same flats go for over £250,000. Many are now owned by private management companies who rent them out for £300 a week. Housing Association rents in Camden are much higher than the council; and they have an appalling record on repairs and how they treat tenants.

Councils aren't perfect. Our homes need improvements. But why should the 8 million people who live in council housing in Britain have to trade our affordable rents and security to get new kitchens and bathrooms?

Ministers tell us there are only three ways council tenants can get improvements done - selling off homes through stock transfer, PFI and Arms Length Management Organisations (Almos).

In Camden we've fought off all three. We rejected sell-off to a housing association in 1997. Stock transfer means tenants lose our secure tenancy and pay higher rents.

The registered social landlords which take over are, increasingly, multi-million pound national companies run like private businesses. John Belcher, chief executive of Anchor Trust says: "We're a business, and all our divisions are expected to make a surplus." Any original local connections - never mind accountability - are lost through mergers and takeovers. Whitefriars, which took over Coventry council housing, now promotes itself as a regeneration company and bids for work in Solihull.

Sizeable votes against sell-offs in Birmingham and elsewhere have made whole stock transfer unachievable now in most metropolitan areas.

In March, Camden tenants on Maiden Lane voted 81% against a PFI company running their homes. And last December, Camden tenants voted 77% against an Almo taking over. This sent out shockwaves. When the issues were fully debated tenants could see the government's real agenda. Offering extra money for councils who set up a separate private company to run housing is two-stage privatisation. If the money is there, why won't the government let the council do the improvements?

The "consultation" is one-sided. Councils spent £65m - out of our rents - on glossy PR campaigns to promote sell-offs last year. In Stroud, a no vote was won despite intimidation of tenant activists and elected councillors. The local MP was threatened with sanctions for opposing the sell-off. In Tower Hamlets, the council used its anti-social behaviour policy to remove posters opposing a sell-off - leaving their own up. Ballots are now called ahead of the publicised date, so tenants vote before they hear the case against. This makes a mockery of "choice" in public services.

What tenants want is a "fourth option". We want local authorities to repair and improve our homes, not transfer to a private sector.

Privatisation doesn't come cheap. In 2003-04 the government budgeted £800m to subsidise sell-offs. It leads to higher rents and so higher housing benefit costs: Unison estimates these at £249m a year since 1997.

The money is there to bring council housing back up to a first-class standard if all this spending along with the receipts from right to buy sales was reinvested. Council housing is cheaper to build, manage and maintain than the alternatives. But £13bn was siphoned out from tenants' rents by the Treasury between 1990 and 2003. No wonder there is a £19bn backlog of repairs and improvements.

Now the mechanisms have changed but council tenants are still being robbed. Last year we paid an average £2,650 in rent but only received £1,773 in management, maintenance and major repair services. That leaves £877 per tenant (£2.2bn per year for England and Wales) which could provide revenue so councils could borrow like other landlords - the "fourth option".

Across the country tenants are saying our estates and our rights are worth defending. We do not want a return to the private sector dominating housing. There is growing opposition - and not just from council tenants. The national campaign Defend Council Housing is being joined by a growing alliance of local authorities, trade unions and MPs calling for a fourth option for council housing.

The Commons Public Accounts Committee last July concluded that selling off council housing costs the taxpayer at least £1,300 a home more than councils doing the improvements. The Office of the Deputy Prime Minister select committee recommended "that the government reconsider adopting the principle of investment allowances to local authorities".

Investment in first-class, affordable and secure council housing could make a major contribution to meet today's needs. The money is there. The obvious solution is for the chancellor to agree to the fourth option in his next spending review.

· Alan Walter is a member of the National Defend Council Housing campaign

Kai Andersen - Poster of article
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