camden tenants win victory for council housing
WORKERS, FEBRUARY 2004 ISSUE
Council house tenants and leaseholders in the London Borough of Camden have voted overwhelmingly to keep 33,000 homes under public control. A decisive 77% NO to takeover by an independent housing corporation called an "Arms-Length Management Organisation" (Almo) has shattered the government's dream of offloading its housing responsibilities onto profiteers.
The tenants' organisation, Defend Council Housing (DCH), backed by Unison, has sent a clear signal to tenants in other parts of the country that, if the flagship can be scuppered, they can win too. After the High Court declared the ballot lawful, Camden Leader Jane Roberts was forced to admit "the Almo is a dead duck". The poll has plunged the Council into crisis. They had spent much time and undisclosed amounts of money on glossy propaganda.
Camden had been rated a top performer and its Leader was created a dame for her willingness to allow the borough to be used to pilot government schemes. They expected to win. After all, this is a government that knows what's best for us. As with student fees, foreign policy, the imposition of undemocratic cabinet-style local government, and so much else, Blair believes religiously in his ultimate ability to argue some sense into workers, whom he views as ignorant and conservative. But the magic no longer works -- he is increasingly embattled with a working class that can think for itself.
Camden tenants have shown themselves independent-minded enough to resist years of blandishments, blackmail and bribery. The options of stock transfer and Private Finance Initiatives were both rejected. They were then told that only an Almo could "unlock" the £283 million of Treasury money needed for maintaining and modernising their homes.
A shadow board met behind closed doors to prepare the groundwork for what would emerge as a trading company, selling services to leaseholders and other authorities.
Tenants were assured that transfer was not the same as privatisation, as the company would initially be owned by the Council. This ignored the fact that it could easily be sold off. Formerly esteemed councillors turned government agents warned there was no fourth option.
This was a "once in a generation" opportunity; a vote against would be "playing poker" with the future of their homes; it would mean "patch-and-make-do repairs" and no new kitchens and bathrooms, or handrails for the elderly. If they refused to support Camden's bid, "their money" would instead go to Islington or Hammersmith & Fulham -- boroughs which had recently signed up to an Almo. Show flats were exhibited to demonstrate what tenants would be missing -- but council workers refused to staff them.
Rumours abounded of corrupt officials and the gagging of tenants' representatives. Unions threatened action. In a Commons debate, Prescott (perhaps unwittingly) was forced to blow the Town Hall's cover -- albeit with a lukewarm offer: "We will try to provide adequate funding for those who want to stay with their local authorities." And local MP Frank Dobson -- no doubt still smarting from Labour losses in local elections -- accused the government of putting a gun to the council's head.
DCH ran an informative campaign, pointing out what a lucrative and viable business council housing is. Private companies can't wait to get their hands on estates, and regularly target them with letters inviting sales. Nationally, just over half the amount of rent from 3.6 million tenants is spent on managing, maintaining and improving homes. The rest -- some £1000 per tenant per annum -- goes to the government. This has been described as a hidden tax on the poorest in the land. Money from right-to buy sales amounts to £3 billion.
New government rules on rent are set to force levels above inflation, but councils are not allowed to keep the increase to spend on improvements. The backlog of repairs has reached £19 billion -- the result of a calculating policy of under-investment. Getting a fraction of this money back in exchange for private management is a derisory deal by any standards.
Not only did the tenants see through privatisation in its various guises -- not only did they oppose it -- more significantly, they came up with a plan of their own. A very simple and effective plan: cut out the middle man, the capitalist, and give the money direct to council housing. They pointed to the inefficiency of private schemes. In neighbouring Westminster an Almo has already run out of cash.
Estates are being sold to once-affordable housing associations, which are themselves a prime example of privatised housing stock (legislative changes in the '80s severed their relationship to local authorities, resulting in reduced democratic participation, spiralling rents, and a reluctance to meet maintenance obligations). Leaseholders faced with high estimates for capital works could usually negotiate a reduction with the council, but fear losing such consideration under a private organisation.
The battle for direct funding will be stepped up in the coming months, with public meetings, parliamentary lobbying and other activities. In rejecting the Almo, residents have struck a blow in support of a great social asset unique to Britain and one of the finer achievements fought for in the Second World War. For a Labour government to abandon the concept of affordable public housing at a time of housing crisis equal to the 1940s is, as Labour MP Austin Mitchell said, "a sad betrayal".
But no one should be surprised. Until "public ownership" translates into real working class control and managers are prevented from building careers out of the sell-off of workers' assets, we can expect more of the same, whatever government gets in