“Irrational” Tenants Scupper Government Transfer Policy

Following the recent rejection of ALMO (Arms Length Management Organisation) in Camden and a series of setbacks in other parts of the country, the government’s attempts to sell off council housing appear to have hit the buffers. The government hopes to rid itself of the burden of council housing by only releasing funds for ALMO, stock transfer and Private Finance Initiatives – if only it weren’t for those pesky tenants! Responding to the recent reversals, housing minister Keith Hill labelled tenants who have voted against transfers and ALMO as “irrational”. Surely the single most irrational element in this is the government’s dogmatic insistence that money should only be made available if tenants vote to end council housing. If the money’s there for schemes such as ALMO, what’s stopping them spending it on improving the quality of council housing and keeping it within council control?

We’re not under any illusions that council housing is in a healthy state – far from it. But at least with the council you have the ultimate say. If you don’t like the way they deal with it you vote them out! There’s no such say with Housing Associations and ALMOs. And with proposals for Haggerston West and Kingsland Estates in Hackney apparently only offering stock transfer options (with a smattering of private housing to appease the city workers spreading down Kingsland Road), it’s an issue that has local as well as national importance.

In a recent Guardian article “Minister refuses to back down over unpopular transfer policy”, the full scale of the government’s housing problem is revealed:

The housing minister has blamed tenants who vote against ditching their council landlords for the government’s likely failure to meet its manifesto commitment on decent homes.

Appearing before a parliamentary inquiry, Keith Hill insisted that the government’s policy of hiving off council homes would not be scrapped in the face of tenant opposition to the idea. He also said he was “tearing up” former local government secretary Stephen Byers’ commitment to give all tenants the right to a decent home even if they opt to keep their council landlords.

Asked whether the government would meet its target of repairing all council homes to a decent standard by 2010, Mr Hill refused to give a straight answer. Appearing before the select committee for the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister he said: “We are determined to work with local authorities to ensure the target is reached, but it takes two to tango.”

He added: “If local authorities don’t measure up to the opportunities then there’s a limit to what the government can do. There’s an additional issue if tenants themselves vote against the opportunity.” Mr Hill also conceded that the interim target of repairing a third of homes by March 2004 will not be met by the deadline, but some time “in the course of the year”.

The government insists that the extra money for meeting the target will only be available to councils that hive off their homes in one of three ways: transferring them to housing associations; switching housing management to so-called arm’s length management organisations (almos); or repairing them through a private finance initiative consortium.

That policy was thrown into doubt earlier this month by an overwhelming vote in Camden against setting up an almo. Camden has now exhausted all three of the government’s options but it still needs an extra £283m to meet the decent homes target.

Mr Hill insisted that the government’s three-option policy “had not changed in light of recent events in Camden”. He added: “There will be no so called fourth way. The cavalry will not be coming over the hill with alternatives.” But he conceded that this may mean the government misses its manifesto pledge. “You can bring a horse to water, but your can’t make it drink. We don’t want to force tenants to accept changes they don’t want.”

Mr Hill said the Camden vote was a “singular event”. He blamed an “unscrupulous” campaign by Defend Council Housing, which he dismissed as a “combination of superannuated Communists and not much younger Trotskyists”. He suggested that Camden should work with the 70% of tenants who did not vote in the ballot.

He also admitted that a vote in 2002 against transfer in Birmingham was a “setback” to the government’s policy. Birmingham requires an extra £1bn to meet the 2010 target, but it has little prospect of raising that money through the government’s three options. Mr Hill added: “I’m extremely conscious of the Birmingham experience, we are heavily engaged as a department with Birmingham in seeking a way forward.”

Mr Hill also sought to avoid the embarrassment of missing the decent homes target by watering down the wording of the commitment. Speaking after the hearing he said: “We want to ensure that every tenant who needs his or home improved has the opportunity to do that. If they chose not to that’s a matter for them.”

When it was pointed out to him that giving tenants the opportunity to improve homes was different from the manifesto commitment, Mr Hill said the government had to assume that tenants would vote “rationally”.