Letter published in the Hackney Gazette – Friday, August 19

Your article “£90 million windfall boosts council homes facelift” (Gazette, August 4) tells part of the story about Hackney’s ALMO. Here are a few other points:

* This is not a “windfall.” It is a £90 million loan, which the Council will need to pay back in the future.

* This loan is only available to the Council if they are judged to be a “2 star” or good service. While the Audit Commission bureaucrats may award this, a fairer test would be to look round the estate where you live and think how may “stars” you would award our council.

* Leaseholders will have to pay for all works on estates. There is certainly no “windfall” for them.

* We will not all get the promised “modern kitchens and bathrooms.” Not only will leaseholders not get them, many tenants won’t either. There are no plans to replace any kitchens or bathrooms unless they are over 20-30 years old.

* This council is hopeless at spending money. If they have £90 million think how much of that they will hand over to consultants, architects and as profits to contractors. We will be lucky to see half of it actually spent on repairs to our homes.

* The ALMO will mean big pay rises for council housing bosses and will give an excuse for councillors to pass the buck on repairs and estate cleaning. It will be “don’t ask me, go to the ALMO.”

The Council plan to set up their ALMO in April, just one month before the council elections in May. We won’t get a chance to stop the ALMO by voting for different councillors, just like we did not get the chance for a straight yes or no vote to an ALMO in a ballot of tenants and leaseholders. Yet again Hackney’s Labour council is imposing on us their plans to hand over their responsibilities to a private company.

Of course £90 million is a lot of money, but council tenants and leaseholders pay many times that amount to the council each year. We shouldn’t jump ship to an ALMO just for the possibility of getting a £90 million debt.

Tony Butler
Hoxton representative, Hackney Independent
Cropley Court
Wenlock Barn Estate
London N1

"Minister of Lies"

From Private Eye:

If, with a general election approaching, an opposition party found its posters ripped down on government orders, its advertisements refused by newspapers, and its spokesmen prevented from booking halls for public meetings, there would be an outcry.

But this is exactly what is happening to defenders of council housing around Britain who want to campaign on an equal footing with the forces in favour of privatisation as local councils ballot their tenants over “stock transfers”.

In Lambeth, South London, where the council is controlled by a Tory-Lib Dem coalition, a proposal to sell the Clapham Park Estate to Clapham Park Homes, a subsidiary of the Metropolitan Housing Group, would see half the existing council flats demolished and 1,428 expensive private flats built at a cost of £560m – all to raise the £28m required to have improvements done to bring the remaining social housing up to the government’s “decent homes standard”. So far £2.5m has been spent on the campaign to persuade tenants to vote for the stock transfer.

Lending his support for the transfer is local MP Keith Hill, who also happens to be housing minister. In 2003 he declared: “The law is entirely clear. Tenants need to be presented with equal information about the pros and cons of the various options for which they are being consulted. That is absolutely the principle that we as government and we as ministers conform to.”

Fine words… but a blatant lie. Opponents of the transfer have alleged intimidation and abuse by board members and staff employed by the Clapham Park Project (the quango administering the transfer). The use of a “converted sports bag”, with no secure lock as a ballot box in the show flat on the estate has cast doubt on the robustness and integrity of the democratic process. And tenants also received a newsletter from the so-called “Clapham Park Independent Stock Transfer Campaign”. It included an article smearing the “No” campaigners as “pagans and racists… squatters and illegal occupiers…” No contact details were given, despite the fact that CPP staff were seen distributing it. Meanwhile locks on tenants noticeboards were changed to prevent anti-transfer literature being displayed.

Across the river in Labour-run Tower Hamlets, where a similar series of ballots are taking place, housing manager Terry Damiano has instructed his staff to take down any “Vote No” posters they see on estates. In both boroughs bookings of public halls by “No” campaigners have been denied or cancelled at last minute.

With privatisation of the nation’s council housing being ideologically driven by the government, big proftis to be made by developers, and council housing managers salivating at the prospect of fat private sector salaries, it looks like democracy will be the first thing to go under the ball and chain.

ALMO Ballot "Manipulated" – Hackney Independent takes on the council in the Gazette

Town hall chiefs were accused of deliberately misleading council tenants this week by “manipulating” the result of a ballot on the future of their homes.

Cllr Jamie Carswell, cabinet minister for housing described it as an “unambiguous mandate” for ALMOs following the ballot of 25,000 tenants and 8,000 leaseholders.

The council needs to raise £220 million to bring its crumbling housing stock up to a decent standard and hopes to tap into millions of pounds of government funds for necessary improvements.

But Peter Sutton of political party Hackney Independent says the voting figures are far from a “resounding green light to ALMOs” and has slammed the figures used in the a council press release as “pure propaganda and manipulation”.

“The release says a significant majority of 80 per cent of voters supported ALMOs,” he said.

“Despite two extensions to the deadline and an appeal letter, only 7,000 tenants and leaseholders voted. Of those, 64% put ALMOs as their first choice. To get the 80 per cent figure mentioned in the press release, the council would have had to have included people who put ALMOs as their second, third and fourth choices.

“It means, despite months of one-sided pro-ALMO propaganda, only just over 4,000 tenants and leaseholders could be persuaded to vote for an ALMO – just 14 per cent of the borough’s council tenants and leaseholders”, he added.

However, Cllr Jamie Carswell said he was delighted people had taken the ‘test of opinion’ seriously and voted. “This is the culmination of three years communication around ‘Decent Homes’ and means people have made their feelings very clear that an ALMO is their preferred option”, he added.

Council Chiefs will hope to meet with the Government in January to submit a bid for establishing ALMOs.

(see also our letters page for more recent coverage in the Hackney Gazette)

Hackney Independent's Peter Sutton interviewed by "Inside Housing" Magazine


Inside Housing is the weekly magazine for housing workers. Its latest issues includes a 3 page feature on Hackney Council’s “test of opinion” on the Decent Homes Standard, focusing mainly on the Council’s use of Show Flats to convince us that everything will be rosy – if we sign all our rights away so they can privatise our homes. As the article points out, the Show Flats have all sorts of fixtures and fittings in them that we’ll never see in our homes.

A source involved with the initiative confirms in the article that the Council are seriously worried by the campaigns mounted by local people against their propaganda: “Better the devil you know is the phrase that’s repeated again and again. Many residents think Hackney is a bad council, but prefer that to whatever an ALMO would do.”

After all the Council-funded glossy posters and fun days, Barbara Barton (Hackney’s decent homes standard programme manager) has the nerve to have a go at leaflets produced by local people because the information in them “isn’t unbiased”! A career as a New Labour spin-doctor surely awaits you, Barbara.

Hackney Independent is committed to driving New Labour out of working class areas in Hackney, and to exposing their lies. In the article Hackney Independent member Peter Sutton is quoted as saying:

“The vote is a charade. They intend to bring in an ALMO – it doesn’t matter what people say. I think it’s misleading – they say the ALMO will bring extra money but it’s unlikely. The ALMO will cost £3 Million to £4 Million to set up, and they’ll only get extra money if they get a two star Audit Commission rating. If they told people that, I don’t think people would vote for it.”

Hackney only managed to get a one star rating in 2002 and the Audit Commission couldn’t say they thought it would get any better in the future – which is no news for those of us who live here.

letter in Hackney Gazette (June 2004)

The Independent Working Class Association would like to thank everyone who voted for our candidate Lorna Reid in the London mayoral election.

It is clear from the results that the majority of our votes came from areas such as Hackney and Islington where we have been active on local level for some time.

Unlike the other parties, the IWCA isn’t mainly about elections – we ran a mayoral campaign to raise awareness of our community politics in working class areas. We would therefore like to invite any Hackney residents (whether they voted for us or not) who are concerned about anti-social behaviour, housing repairs and transfers, or defending our vital community facilities from privatisation to get in touch.

Carl Taylor
Hackney IWCA

Plug is pulled on showpiece sports centre

(from Guardian website Saturday February 7, 2004)

The fanfare which greeted the £31m Clissold leisure centre could scarcely have been louder. A state of the art sports facility in one of the poorest boroughs in the country, the design was paraded around the the world by the British Council, the Foreign Office and the Millennium Commission.

It was one of “12 for 2000”; buildings meant to symbolise a brave new century and lauded as “prime examples of the excellence of British architecture and design”. But after less than two years the aluminium and glass complex – hailed for its “functional modernism” – has been shut on safety grounds.

The centre, in Hackney, east London, is plagued by flaws which have seen walls cracking, roofs leaking, water pouring into the electrical fittings and drains backing up. The showpiece swimming pools are seriously damaged and the walls of the squash courts are crumbling.

As the adults and children who used the centre troop by, the tubular automatic doors stay shut. A single security guard sits in the gloomy half-light of the reception area.

A building meant to raise the spirits has begun to appear drab. On the side overlooking the street and a school, two large glass panels have been broken and one is held together with sticking tape. As the school emptied last week, a boy with tousled brown hair crossed the road to pick at the jagged glass.

The centre closed last November, initially for a week, which was extended to three months. But the problems are so serious that some of those involved cannot be certain that it will ever open again. When it closed, a sign was pasted up to reassure the public that the closure would only last three months. The deadline has since been erased with Tippex.


Last week, amid growing public disquiet about the loss of what had become a much loved facility and concern about the colossal waste of public money, the beleaguered council sent in an architect to find out what could have gone so wrong. But following comments from the Audit Commission which suggest the building has “systematic design faults”, the council has also sent for its lawyers.

Diane Abbott, the local MP, said: “This may have been feted as one of 12 millennium projects but because of the design, it was very difficult to build. The local authority were the project managers. Why take delivery of a building that was not fit for its use?” She said the debacle had hit the area hard and may require a public inquiry. “This building sucked up money that could have been used on other facilities. Other pools were closed. It is a lovely looking building but I think the design may have been too clever for its own good.”

Eric Ollerenshaw, the leader of Hackney’s Tories, said the closure was embarrassing for all concerned. “This was seen as a key symbol in the revival of Hackney. Much was said about serving the diverse communities and they were going to have things like special sessions for Muslim ladies. But then they had to scrap that be cause the whole thing is glass and they realised that everyone would be able to see in. There was to be a glass viewing area too, but health and safety officials would not allow it to be used because they considered it unsafe.”

Mr Ollerenshaw said councillors and residents were desperate for information. “It is Hackney’s own Millennium Dome fiasco and the majority of councillors have not got a clue what is going on because we are told this is in the hands of the lawyers and it is all confidential.”

It should all have been so different. The centre was funded by Hackney with “match funding” from the government’s sporting quango, Sport England. The original estimated cost was £7m but that soon proved woefully inaccurate. As costs grew and the intricacies of building what had been designed became apparent, so did the delays and the centre opened two years late.

Greg McNeill ran the Clissold Swimming Club there, teaching youngsters how to swim and then coaching them to county competition standard. “People who used the centre on a daily basis were complaining from day one,” he said. “There were leaks, the plumbing system didn’t work properly. It wasn’t safe to use the showers because you got scalded or frozen. The ceiling started falling down because of the damp and condensation. When we said all this we were called whingers.”

Ken Worpole, of the Clissold Users’ Group, said many preferred a less elaborate design. “I think their heads were dizzied by this wonderful architecture. It is the wrong building at the wrong time in the wrong place fulfilling the wrong function.”

Web protest

Hackney is in a bind. The centre is in Stoke Newington, where working-class families live alongside middle-class professionals. Both grow angrier by the day, at the loss of the centre and a perceived dearth of information. A well-used website fuels the protest campaign.

But with the possibility of a legal case, the council feels the less said publicly the better. That strategy may be legally sound but it is politically problematic. A spokeswoman said: “We have a duty to defend the financial interests of the Hackney council tax payer, which is why we have been robustly pursuing this action since we were advised by counsel that we had a good case.”

Despite repeated requests, no one was available for comment at the award winning architects Hodder Associates, based in Manchester. That silence speaks volumes in east London, where officials mourn not just the loss of much-needed sports facilities but the chance to kickstart regeneration with a world-class building.

'Mixed Communities' – not sustainable in the long run

‘Mixed Communities’ – not sustainable in the long run (from London Housing magazine, December 2003) and published on IWCA National Site

The push for a greater social mix in our communities is accepted by nearly all without question as a good thing. That’s wrong, says the London Tenant Federation. All the evidence suggests gentrification on a massive scale, leaving council tenants marginalised.

Whilst the Government and housing professionals chant the mantra, “in order to be sustainable, communities must be socially mixed”, those of us living in social housing and in deprived communities have been absent from the debate.For council tenants living in London, particularly in inner London, the policy appears to mean little more than the encouragement of gentrification, and for our local authorities to sell off our homes and community facilities for development. Many of London’s council tenants feel that, far from strengthening and sustaining our communities, this approach puts their homes and communities under threat, particularly in areas that have become fashionable and where property prices are sky high.

The approach seems to fit neatly with other policies, such as the lack of positive investment in council housing, rent restructuring and proposed housing benefit reform. All have a detrimental effect on tenants living in areas with wealthy neighbours. The truth is that in London there is enormous social and economic polarisation. Inner London is the richest area in the European Union and yet the capital also contains three of the most deprived boroughs in the country. The average price of a property here is now more than £250,000, requiring a household income of £83,000 to purchase. Enclaves of wealthy, white, middle-class residents sit alongside areas with huge levels of deprivation – and the truth is that they just don’t mix.

Research by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) and the University of East London (UEL) finds little evidence of gentrification as a positive force. Whilst the proponents of the socially mixed communities policy will state that they are not advocating gentrification, Tim Butler at UEL suggests “nobody is in favour of gentrification and even local authorities, which wish to change their ‘social mix’ of housing or population, refer to it by any other name”.

In a study in gentrified areas of Lambeth, Islington, Hackney, Lewisham and Wandsworth, Tim Butler found “little evidence of the middle class deploying its resources for the benefits of the wider community.” He says: “London’s middle classes share a common relationship to each other which is largely exclusive of those who are not ‘people like us’ – most strikingly perhaps in relation to their ethnicity. In a city that is massively multi-ethnic, its middle classes, despite long rhetorical flushes in favour of multi-culturalism and diversity, huddle together into essentially white settlements in the inner city. Their children have friends like their parents and most of their parents’ friends are people like themselves.”

The ESRC study sought to evaluate more than 100 pieces of research predominantly in North America and in the UK. The policy context for the research was the Government’s commitment to try to encourage private sector investment in deprived and run-down areas. Its June 2002 report says that the positive impacts of gentrification were hard to find. The much “wider set of costs” included displacement of poorer households through price and rent increases, community conflict and racial tension, lower population densities and a greater take on local spending by incoming affluent households. Anecdotal evidence from London Tenant Federation meetings seems to support to this academic research. Our members note that, across London, there are examples of council estates in regeneration/stock transfer schemes that are dependent on demolition of some blocks to sell off to developers. The new apartments constructed in their place are designed with a clear separation from the social housing – most obviously aesthetically and frequently with entrances facing away from the rest of the estate. Expensive cafés and restaurants are built which then push out existing local shops. If the new wealthy residents have children, they are unlikely to attend local schools that are dominated by children from council estates. Council tenants feel that the priority for council and police resources is focused on the more expensive areas and away from our estates. If London’s council tenants are asked what we think will make our communities sustainable, we are likely to suggest: positive investment in our homes and in new council homes; rents that reflect the qualities we value in our homes rather than the area’s property values; good access to employment, leisure and youth facilities and good care for our young and old. Missing from the list though, almost certainly, will be the demand for “socially mixed communities”.

Strong Arm Tactics over Arms Length Management

With Hackney Council’s Jamie Carswell already a firm believer, ALMO is a distinct possibility for Hackney’s council housing stock. As highlighted by the IWCA in a recent letter to the Hackney Gazette, ALMO is another means of privatisation. But recent developments in neighbouring Islington and nearby Camden, should be an eye-opener for those people who think Hackney council will listen to tenants’ views when the decision is made. Reprinted below is an article from Islington IWCA’s website outlining major concerns over how the council is handling the issue. This is followed by a story from Inside Housing website on Camden’s rush towards ALMO.

Ballot on Almo is agreed – but can it be fair?
(Highbury & Islington Express – Article – 14.11.03)

Angry campaigners say the vote on the future of their homes is being steamrollered by council propaganda.

Until last week Islington Council had steadfastly refused a ballot on proposals to set up an Arms Length Management Association (Almo) to take over running their housing estates.

But the Islington Independent Working Class Association (IWCA) says the last minute decision to ask tenants if they favour an Almo was a deliberate attempt to stifle debate prior to the vote.

Gary O’Shea, of the IWCA, said: “Most tenants received their ballot papers just two days after the announcement was made. The council is obviously trying to push this through quickly.

“I think it had started to panic that plans were beginning to unravel. Early last week a tenant representative on the Almo Shadow Board was frogmarched from the building because he refused to sign a confidentiality agreement preventing him from telling tenants the real facts.

“Councillors have refused to turn up to any meetings organised by tenants who were not hand-picked by them. And the ballot papers have been sent out in the same envelope as pro-Almo propaganda leaflets that have “vote yes” in them 21 times. The council has mounted a propaganda offensive so one-sided it would put any tinpot dictatorship to shame.”

There is also concern about the way the decision to hold a ballot was taken. Labour leader Mary Creagh said: “Councillor Hitchins leaked the news of the ballot on Tuesday when the decision was supposed to have been made openly and democratically at Thursday’s executive meeting.”

But Cllr Hitchins said it had always been his intention to hold a ballot and that it was necessary to get on with it to stop the spread of inaccurate information.
“Once people know there will be a ballot they want to see it quickly,” he said. “Camden had a six month gap between the announcement and the ballot and I couldn’t believe the amount of misleading and untrue facts people were told in that time.

“I told the press the executive was likely to agree a ballot on Thursday because the truth is we’re not going to vote against our colleagues on decisions as big as this.”

Tenants and leaseholders can vote on the proposal by phone on 0800 081 0202, on the internet at www.election.com/islingtonalmo or by post. The ballot closes at noon next Friday.

‘Totalitarian’ ALMO campaign under fire – Inside Housing website

The row over Camden Council’s bid to set up an arm’s-length management organisation has escalated with campaigners threatening to lodge a judicial review accusing the council of circulating misleading information and proposing a biased ballot question.

With the ballot due to start next week, lawyers acting on behalf of two tenant campaigners have written to council chief executive Moira Gibb alleging that most of the information circulated is ‘entirely one-sided’.

They also say the proposed ballot question will ‘lead many voters to conclude that a no vote is tantamount to voting against improvements in their dwellings’.

Campaign group Defend Council Housing has said the council could be acting unlawfully and has demanded it changes the ballot question and distributes a leaflet setting out some of the arguments against the ALMO.

But the council has rejected the allegations and roundly refused to change the ballot question. A spokesperson said: ‘The overview and scrutiny commission considered the matter and felt the proposed ballot wording to be neutral, factual and fair.’

Campaigners have also levelled charges of ‘totalitarianism’ at the council after it emerged that that senior managers at the authority ordered the removal of anti-ALMO posters from council properties by lunchtime tomorrow.

Unison assistant branch secretary Anton Moctonian said: ‘We are asking our members not to carry out this task until we have sought advice on this. These tactics have more in common with those practiced in totalitarian regimes as opposed to democratic and free societies.’

DCH national committee member Alan Walter added that his organisation would fight back by replacing any poster taken down by the council with ‘at least 10 additional posters’.

A spokesperson for the council said that posters would only be removed if they were an eyesore.

She said: ‘Patch managers have only been told to remove them from areas where they are not creating a welcoming atmosphere’.

Vital Now – Vital Then?

In response to an article in last week’s Hackney Gazette about the site of Bibs and Braces nursery being turned into a private nursery – with the help of lottery funding – an IWCA letter from Asha Kelly hit back. Lead letter in Hackney Gazette 23rd October reprinted here:

Councillor Linda Kelly may be denying any responsibility for shutting the Bibs and Braces nursery (Nursery Back in Business – Hackney Gazette October 16 2003) but it was her party that sold it off last year. Closing down a council-run nursery that served working class parents and reopening it as a private nursery charging £135 a week may strike some as perverse until you realise that this privatisation by stealth seems to be part of Labour’s strategy in Hackney and beyond. If the nursery is now “vital for the area” as Cllr Kelly claims, wasn’t it “vital for the area” when it was council run and a whole lot cheaper?

Isn’t it also a touch ironic that the new nursery can now be built after lottery funding was made available? After all, it’s not usually the middle class who buy the lottery tickets which provide the money for lottery funding, but the working class. A strange case of the poorer part of the community dipping into their pockets to subsidise a private venture for the better off!

A new lease of life

With latest figures showing an astonishing increase in the number of empty properties in Hackney (from 795 to 2895 in the space of just a year), we reprint here an article from The Guardian’s website arguing the case for local councils taking over ownership of private properties left vacant for no good reason.
(Friday October 10, 2003 – Society Guardian website)

As consultation ends on a scheme to force landlords to bring their empty properties back into use, Jack Dromey urges the government to take measures to implement it

With all the talk at the moment of a housing crisis, you could be forgiven for not picking up on the fact that there are a startling 729,770 empty homes across England. Not a lot of people know that but just think of the contribution that they could make to meeting housing need?
While some of these empty homes are in areas of low demand for housing, over half are empty where there is high housing need. In London and the south-east, for example, there are just under 185,000 empty homes. Of this total more than 80% are in the private sector and 70,000 have been empty for more than six months.

Yet in 2002 there were around 59,000 families registered as homeless in the same region.

The debate on empty homes in this country has moved on. It is no longer about the shocking management of empty homes by the NHS, Ministry of Defence or local councils, as much work has been undertaken in this area over the last decade. The big challenge now is bringing back into use those long-term empty private homes to meet increasing housing need.

To date local authorities across the land have adopted empty property strategies and have worked with private owners of empty homes to ensure the homes are brought back into use. Through targeted grants programmes, and gaining the associated nomination rights, empty homes have been brought back into use.

Yet a voluntary approach is only sadly going to take us so far. Take just one local authority, the London Borough of Hammersmith and Fulham, which has for many years run a progressive empty property strategy. Despite this excellent work, the council still found itself with over 1,000 properties where their approaches had been turned down. In many cases these owners are “accidental landlords”. They may be owners of a shop, with a flat upstairs, or landlords who have inherited a property. The best long-term solution is to turn these landlords into good landlords or encourage them to make a decision to get out of the property business rather than force them out of it.

An idea was developed with such properties in areas of high housing need, where a good reason can’t be given for keeping the property empty, and the owner has turned down offers of assistance, the local authority should have the discretionary power to take over the management of the property.

The authority would undertake the necessary capital works to make good the house and then the rental income stream could pay for this work. Once the debts had been paid, the management of the house would revert back to the owner. As the management period neared completion, the owner would be offered training on being a landlord or advice on how they could continue letting out the house. The key issue with this idea is that ownership is not the issue it is occupation.

Indeed it can be seen as a win win solution. The owners receive an income and their property is improved, housing need is met and the community loses another empty home and its ability to attract crime and vandalism.

Such a scheme was advocated by the Local Government Association in its submission to the housing and planning select committee and is supported by Shelter, the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors and indeed my own union the Transport and General Workers’ Union. And a number of local authorities are expressing interest in this scheme, from Southampton to Salford showing that this idea is not one restricted just to London.

The recent select committee investigation into empty homes in 2002 recommended a pilot scheme to test such a scheme and the government responded with interest to this idea. In their Communities’ Plan published on 5th February 2003, the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister announced that it was minded to go out to public consultation on this issue, and a consultation paper was launched at the joint Empty Homes Agency/Social Market Foundation conference in May.

And we have now come to the end of a three-month public consultation period. The government has responded quickly to the campaign run by the Empty Homes Agency, but it must not lose momentum. Compulsory leasing (or empty homes management orders as the government prefers to call it) has massive potential to increase the supply of affordable housing by using existing assets. This is a radical idea but one that we need to put into action fast.

For that reason I call upon the government to include compulsory leasing in the housing bill when it returns to parliament in the next session. With the current intense pressure for new housing the government must turn this idea from rhetoric to reality soon. We can’t afford to wait.

Jack Dromey is the national convenor at the Transport and General Workers’ Union

For more information on the IWCA’s policies on this issue see www.iwca.info