There are several pressures on the city council for the 'sell-off', none of which singly or jointly amount to a sufficient case. First, the government has stacked the cards against council-controlled social housing, in terms of the financing options that are available to councils. Second, pressure has been exerted from the Tory-dominated county council. Third, there may be pressure from the city council's own (non-elected) officials.
The government has set 2010 as a target for the updating of all social housing stock. No one disputes that the three housing schemes need modernising. Simon's House, for instance, has no elevator, and tenants have to share bathroom facilities. The only option is to convert three units into two, creating en-suite facilities. Of course, this will lead to a loss of around a third of places.
Somewhat conveniently, and quite possibly on the basis of erroneous data from the 2001 census, the city has to reduce the number of sheltered housing places by 53. The real reason behind this seems to be cost-cutting, as government funding for social housing is being reduced by 1.7 % each year over the next five years nationally, although the cuts for cambridge are likely to be much higher, akin to the disastrous cuts to local mental healthcare. Of course, these aren't really cut-backs, but reflect the desire of a caring government to provide for people longer in their own homes.
Tenants of Simon's House unanimously expressed their anger and concern over the 'sell-off'. Some have lived for over two decades in social housing built almost three decades ago on land left for charity by the engineer whose name it now bears. This is just one more example of the surrender of public services to the private sector, masterminded by a government that rigs the rules in favour of private companies over locally controlled and democratically accountable bodies and then has the temerity to point with straight faces to market forces as the reason for the changes. After years of mergers and megamergers, there are very few truly local social housing corporations left. Most now cover a large geographical area and control thousands of places.
Activists, including some city councillors, met with Cambridge MP David Howarth on 13 April, but apart from warm words and agreement in principle, left with empty hands. Howarth claimed that something has to be done soon to upgrade the sheltered housing schemes, and that the city council really has no option but to take the action they're about to. Faced with the question what would happen if, as seems inevitable, the demand for sheltered places increases in five years time, he had to admit that new housing would need to be built, at huge cost.
Of course, if Cambridge City Council, following the lead of a growing number of councils nationwide, were to just hold their nerve and make a stand, the government can be embarrassed into changing the rules. So merely because the council doesn't have the backbone to make a temporary stand, these three sheltered housing schemes will soon be lost forever.
Now in 2006, with the help of a legal loophole, the privatisation project shows its true colours by attacking the most vulnerable and the elderly tenants in flagrant disregard for democracy or basic human decency.