Defend Council Housing National Conference

‘A Manifesto for Council Housing’ Congress House, London.

Throughout the conference every speaker recognised the good work that Alan Walter had done to defend council housing prior to his untimely death. Speakers in the first part of the morning spoke of the housing situation in their own boroughs as well as an overview of the national picture. They all spoke of a need to make serious financial reforms.

Austin Mitchell MP reported that a major council house building and renovation programme will meet the urgent need of the 1.8 million households on council waiting lists. He stated that £2,000 grants to first time buyers and notional 10% shares for tenants will drive up house prices and encourage yet more borrowing by those least able to afford it. In his view the Governments latest Reform proposals to allow councils to keep more of tenants’ rents are welcome but do not go far enough. ‘The government has been willing to write off all the debt for homes in stock transfers. It is unjust that they are refusing to do the same for council tenants.’

Frank Dobson MP spoke of the ‘rent robbery’ whereby for decades the government had been taking rent monies and not giving enough money for the upkeep of council homes. Ministers claim much of this money is used to pay for ‘historic debt’. A large amount of the debt is actually new debt finance for the ALMOs. Despite its claims the government put no new money into ALMOs; rather council tenants collectively pay from their rents. He spoke of the fact that bad housing affects lives, as in health and education.

Other speakers included Pete Challis, National Housing Officer for UNISON who spoke of the Tories who have said they will give money for housing but who will take from other services such as refuse and homecare in order to pay for it. Simon Hughes MP mentioned the Labour Manifesto that wanted councils to be able to borrow at a lower rate of interest and promised a mass new build programme with apprenticeships. Insulation would be offered for homes and local authorities would be able to use section 606 money to build housing or renovate estates. Jack Dromey, Deputy General Secretary UNITE,  Linda McNeil, Leeds Tenants Federation, Paul O’Brien, APSE Scottish Tenants Organisation, Cllr Deborah Edwards, exec member for Housing, Reading City Council and the Chair – Eileen Short of DCH all contributed.

The second part of the morning was taken up with a workshop concentrating on Finance Reforms – are they good for tenants?

Councillor Catherine Smart, exec member housing, Cambridge City Council, gave her views as a member of the Lib Dems. She spoke of the stupidity of rents being set only two weeks before tenants are informed and how this does not allow for any planning.

Councillor Phil Waker, exec member housing for Barking and Dagenham Council, explained how it was impossible to get money to pull down old buildings and in his borough they had 5 regeneration estates that needed to be knocked down. He also spoke of the large amount of residents in private rented accommodation, paying high rents that are being paid for by Housing Benefit. If there were more council properties available this money would be saved. In his area the BNP are using housing as a means to attract members by saying that immigrants are taking all the council housing.

Steve Partridge, Chartered Institute of Housing then gave a detailed explanation of the expected Reform. Six local councils piloted the scheme in 2006 -08. A project team was set up from a range of services and organisations. There had been three work streams – Financial detail, Technicalities, and Capacity and Awareness building. The last group will be holding workshops for tenants later in the Spring. Consultation will continue over the election period and a response will be given at the end of June/July.

Requests for willingness to work with the scheme will go out in April 2011.

The proposal is to dismantle 30yrs worth of future HRA subsidy in one go and share it out nationally to 172 local authorities. Rents will be retained locally as will Right to Buy receipts. The system of council grants on offer is not enough money for repairs and decent homes’ works. The new system will allow more transparency on what is paying for what.

Recommendations for the future included

  • Ring fencing the national Housing Revenue Account and ensuring that all council tenants’ rents are spent on their homes.
  • Raise allowances for management, maintenance and major repairs. To be set at a level determined by independent research.
  • Ensure that any formula for allowances is based on a 30 year settlement for long term stability.
  • Ring fence all right to buy receipts to be used to improve existing and new build council housing.
  • Write off or take direct responsibility form the cost of historic debt and remove this element from the housing subsidy system.
  • The government must fulfil its promise to provide capital grants to meet the backlog of work for both Decent Homes and other elements.
  • Local ring fencing, enforce a set of accounting rules to ensure that the costs of all shared services are correctly apportioned between the Housing Revenue Account and the general fund.
  • Provide a public sector safety net as part of any self financing agreement.
  • Enable a massive programme of new build council building
  • Moratorium on stock transfer and other privatisation of council housing assets and land until Review outcome and implications are fully implemented.
  • Protect secure, affordable and democratically accountable council housing – no undermining, means testing or time limiting secure tenancies
  • Improve the guidance on stock transfer ballots to ensure a fair and balanced debate.

Anne Denison. UNISON Convenor for Barnet Homes.

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