Council tenants from across the country
met with councillors and trade union delegates
attending the DCH national conference at TUC Congress House in London. |
45 areas were represented (see list below right).
Read DCH launches Open Letter to Tony Blair
and contributions from opening platform ...
JACK DROMEY, T&G deputy general secretary, informed delegates that the Labour Party NEC working group set up to address the terms of the 2005 conference decision was finally going to meet.
"Can I just start by saying that my own personal background is as not just a trades union activist but a tenant activist as well. I was secretary of the Trades Council in Brent, where I was born and brought up, and I was also secretary of the Brent Federation of Tenants and Residents Associations. And we had a very powerful alliance between local tenants and local trade unionists and we fought some very successful battles against the council to improve housing stock, we had some private sector tenants associations and we fought against illegal evictions and also we fought to put the issue of decent housing on the map at a time if you remember in the 70s when there was a major scandal of office block speculation in London; including the now famous occupation of Centrepoint in the 1970s, I'm very pleased that I was one of the 5 organisers of that military operation. That certainly brought home that scandal of the contrast between, on the one hand, what was rapidly rising homelessness and bad housing, with on the other hand people like Harry Highams who were investing fortunes in office blocks, that then doubled in value every year because he wasn't having to pay rates on them, making even more of a fortune for him. I come to this therefore speaking on behalf not just of our members but because of my own personal passion and commitment born out of my own history.
"Now the starting point - it's always important to say this, what is the starting point? Every tenant deserves a decent home, well maintained, at a price that they can afford, number 1. And number 2, every tenant should have the right to choose. I've always respected that right by tenants. I'll come to say in a moment that there's not a free choice; but before I go onto that, let me make one other point, which I think's very important in terms of how we conduct this debate. And that is that, to be frank, while there's much that is admirable about council housing, its not as good as it should be. I'm somebody who's always argued in the trade union movement that we need to be a twin champion of the members interests but also the public interest. And of course what I want to do is to defend the interests of the good men and women who work in supporting you as tenants for example in direct labour organisations; but also what crucially we need to do is to be restless in our determination to improve the lot for council tenants in this country. Because, I stress again, council housing in this country is not as good as it should be.
"Now, there's one additional dimension to this debate since we met in February at that excellent event in Central Hall, Westminster, and that is the disturbing rise of the brain-dead boot boys of the British National Party. And if you look around the country, you see it in East London at its most traumatic, what is it that feeds the rise of that racism? And there's no question of it, if you have communities, where you have poor housing, and people are desperate for housing, including tenants desperate for homes for their sons and daughters and if you have communities where there is insecurity over decent employment then racism thrives. Crucially if what you do is to provide decent housing, decent social housing, decent council housing, and good job prospects then these rats of racism retreat to the margins of our society.
"Now if I can return to the issue of choice. I'm a strong believer in democracy. The problem is that the government offends against democracy in two fundamental ways. First of all, there is no free choice for tenants. It is like when Henry Ford first when into mass production of cars when he said, you can have any car you want, providing that its black. There is no free choice. And what adds insult to injury, is that they try and load the dice against tenants being able to exercise free choice, including throwing large sums of money in ballots to try and persuade tenants to transfer. And I must say we've had some ludicrous examples, like the one in Birmingham when Ron Atkison, dripping with gold and oozing insincerity that was then posted to tenants in a part of Birmingham, perusading them, or trying to persuade them unsuccessfully to stock transfer. So the first offence against democracy is that the government is not allowing free choice for tenants. And the second offence against democracy, which only now we are putting right, was that two years running at the Labour Party conference there were overwhelming votes in favour of the 'fourth option' and they were, until January of this year, simply ignored by government. And that's absolutely wrong. Now its fair to say, as I said back in February, there were some pretty robust exchanges at the last 2 Labour party conferences. I'll never forget the moment of the rather lively exchange on the floor of the conference between myself and John Prescott…..But what we did was we won overwhelming support for the position that we stand for today, the problem was that the govt ignored it. Now, why did they ignore it? I think two fundamental points. First, there is a prejudice still on the part of too many in government against councils generally, and councils being major providers of social housing in particular. And second there is the dogma of the PSBR, the macro economic policy which says 'we can't have councils borrowing,' for example, 'because it features on the balance sheet - so therefore what we've got to do is to find ways around that by way of stock transfer.' Now that's absolutely wrong, and it has to change.
"I must say that as well as the campaign for the 'fourth option' that I also think that we need a second string to our bow and that's councils once again being able to engage in new build. In 1970 there were 172,000 council homes built. By 2001 councils built 487 council homes. 487. In the same year by the way, RSLs, they built only 22,000. So at a time when the trend is for more people wanting housing what you've got is a decline in social housing, and at the heart of that is councils not being able to engage in new build.
"So I think crucially at the next stages we need those twin objectives - on the one hand a free choice for tenants, and that must mean a wider range of options open to councils, and if tenants vote to stay with their council, why should the council not have the resources to renovate council homes? And on the other hand because we need many more units of accommodation, councils should be free once again to engage in new build with support from government to be able to do precisely that.
"Now, today is very well timed because it happens that we finally have got starting tomorrow, Tuesday, the debate within the party around the future options for councils, including the fourth option, and also councils once again engaging in new build. I have to say by the way - January of this year that was agreed, and here we are almost at the end of May. But I raised very strongly ten days ago with the party centrally saying, 'look we can't have the situation where two years running we ignore decisions then at last you agree we should enter into a debate and then we wait the best part of five months, and bugger all happens!'
"Anyway I think we conditioned the thinking and that debate will commence tomorrow, what's called the national policy forum process. I don't want to mislead. I wish that I could say today that we are going to be able quickly to make the kind of progress that we would like to see. But I tell you this. The door is open; and it's in our hands at the next stages as to how quick progress is made. What's been said is that there will be a process over the next eighteen months, leading up to the next comprehensive spending review, with housing a central issue within that, around those twin issues of councils engaging in new build and councils being able to renovate their housing stock.
"I suspect that you like me will take the same view which is we are not going to wait for eighteen months for an outcome. And that then leads on to how we conduct ourselves at the next stages. One thing we've got to do, is to ensure at last as we have that debate, including with government, about a change in policy, that it's an honest debate without some of the myths that have been pedalled by too many in government. First of all the excellent work referred to by Michael, by the House of Commons Council Housing Group, demonstrated that tenants pay on average 2,650 a year, on average, but that they get out by way of value in services is 1,773 pounds. In other words tenants pay a damn sight more than they get back. And secondly, we've got to knock on the head this notion that somehow housing associations are as night follows day more efficient than councils. Now what I don't want to do, I don't want to bad mouth housing associations. Historically, I've known some small local associations for example, that have done some very good work, and we've got a lot of members that work in housing associations. And I think it's a blind alley to talk about housing associations bad, councils good. But I tell you what, housing associations are simply not what they're cracked up to be. Many of these housing associations are like multi-national companies in terms of their size. And so this barmey myth that somehow these are local community initiatives, could not be further from the truth And also the idea that they are more efficient than councils - well you've only got to live as many tenants do in poorly managed housing association stock, or work for those housing associations to recognise that exactly the same problems that you sometimes see in councils, you see in housing associations as well. Indeed the Housing Corporation has had to intervene in 1 in 5 of the stock transfers because of real problems that there's been in terms of what happens to tenants. The reason I say all of this is that I think if we're going to win this argument we need to be very clear about our starting point - every tenant the right to a decent home they can afford, every tenant the right to choose. And then fight and win the battle for a genuine choice and for councils being able to engage in new build; not getting side-tracked by those in government who would like to set up false arguments, instead concentrating on the facts and winning the argument at the next stage.
"Now the final point I'd make is this. The government talks a great deal about the respect agenda.. Well - let's have respect for tenants. I think it is disrespectful of tenants, to say to tenants that you can have any choice provided that it is not the choice that you want. It is absolutely wrong…
"You can have the best arguments in the world but to break through what you need is overwhelming community and political pressure, and from within the party a pressure on government, for a change of policy. That means therefore that all of us here today have got a very important role to play. Tenants activists at the sharp end working together with trade unionists and others. MPs like Michael and Austin who've bravely spoken out on this issue. A lot of good councillors who have also bravely spoken out on this issue. Working together with us in the trade unions at national level; so that what we do is to win the argument but also then win that change of policy. I am confident, like Michael, that we can do it. I applaud the work that you have done thus far and at the next stages, I'll tell you what, us having forced that door, and it's not just people like me - it's all of us together, all of us together - having forced that door open in government let's go through that door and win what tenants deserve and that is a genuine choice for the future and councils once again engaging in new build."
MICHAEL MEACHER MP, a member of the campaign's Parliamentry group criticised the government's dual standards |
"…Can I say I think this is a very important campaign because I think that one of the big issues, one of the biggest isues at this time in politics, is the government's belief, which I think is completely wrong, which is, if there's a problem, what you need to do is privatise it. If there's a problem in the national health service - we should privatise it. Wrong! If there's a problem in education or city academies - what we need to do is privatise it. Wrong! If there's a problem with pensions, and my God there's enough problems with pensions - we wind down the state schemes and bring in the private sector. Wrong! If there's a problem with the probation service, we should privatise it. Wrong! If there are problems with local authorities, we should bring in the smart new name for PPPs, local development, strategic development partnerships. Wrong! I'm not saying there isn't a role for the private sector - of course, but we want a strong public service model, we want the public sector to give the lead in all of our public services.
"Now this lack of the fourth option. You can't have money for investment in repairs or improvements unless you privatise, or you go to a housing association or to an ALMO. I think this is one of the great scandals of our time. And it's not just we who are saying it. Just look at the government's own arguments. Well the government says it believes in choice. ...Why can't we choose to stay with our local authority and have the same funding on the same level playing field as the other options?
"The government says it believes in efficiency and value for money. Well that's a thoroughly good thing, no-one's going to disagree with that. But the National Audit Office, in their official government report, says that it costs £1300 more to carry out exactly the same improvements… in other words transfer is not good value for money, its actually bad value for money, and its official, because it's in a government document. So why is the government deliberately wasting tax-payers money? And with a new Secretary of State I think we should go on insisting that we have an answer to that question.
"The government says it believes in transparency and fairness. So do I. So do you. So do we all. In that case, how do they justify siphoning off this £2billion? I think this figure is becoming very well understood both in Parliament and in the country. £2 billion a year in council housing revenue accounts and the right to buy receipts. How do you justify - that's the first question - how do you justify siphoning it off, its their money, they're paying it into the council sector for homes, how do you justify taking that money and using it for other forms of housing, for those who are better off, in other tenures? And not only that, this is an estate, a huge estate across the country, 3 or 4 million people live in council homes, how do you justify prohibiting councils from using their own rental income and the value of their own housing stock in order to support borrowing to fund improvements? If the government won't do it, why can't we use our own housing stock, market principles, government believes in the market, that's what private companies do, they use the value of their own stock, of their own estate, in order to borrow; why can't we do exactly the same in council housing?
"And lastly the government says it believes in freedom to choose; it believes in democracy. Well, again, absolutely, all of us believe in that, so why do councils so often put up a one-sided argument, saying that transfer is the only way to get repairs and improvements, what justification is there for them doing that? Why are public funds always provided only for one side, for the pro-transfer campaign? And when organisations like yours set up public meetings, set up public debates, so people can discuss it, why do councils either fight very shy of attending, or actually deliberately obstruct them? … Why do council officers go out and pull down notices which are anti-transfer material and why do they start the ballots - this is another dirty little trick - why do they start the ballot before the publicised debate, well its very obvious, so that tenants have to vote before they've had a chance to have a fair and balanced debate and listen to both sides. This is the opposite of democracy. It is the opposite of choice. It is blackmail. Blackmail. That's actually what it is…
"Well of course housing associations, private companies, they're very good at rolling out the lavish show homes, with new gardens, garden walls, new bathrooms, you name it its all there. But then of course they discover the actual reality. Higher rents, higher service charges... these things need to be known, they need to be known nationally they need to be known in parliament; and I say all power to your organisation for making sure that people understand thse arugments which so rarely get into the newspapers, and that's why we say, stick with your secure tenancies, get that message out as you are… stay where you are, that's the best way of securing your fuure.
"…Lets stick with the tenancies, we want more council house building not less…. We need a code of practice to guarantee a fair and balanced debate, which outlaws this outrageous blackmail claim, its either transfer and you get investment or you rot in hell where you are - that is outrageous! And we need I think to fight very hard; with the new Secretary of State, with a new department, lets hope there is a new start. I hope and I believe that there may well be. You've done extraordinarily well in your campaign so far and I salute you. I think this is a very powerful campaign which in the end has arguments and demands which are irresistible. So keep with it because in the end we're going to win!"
ALAN WALTER, Camden tenant and DCH chair, summed up where the campaign has got to and what we need to do to win.
"We’ve build an unprecedented alliance of tenants, trade unions, councillors and MPs. We’ve won the argument almost everywhere except in the Cabinet.
"The government has come under sustained pressure in the last year, including: evidence from the House of Commons Council Housing group (May 2005); the Audit Commission call for a 'review of housing finance (June 2005); 98 local authorities opting for stock retention (July 2005); the almost unanimous vote at the Labour Party conference (Sept 2005); the DCH Lobby of Parliament (Feb 2006), 144 MPs signing the current Early Day Motion and a growing proportion of NO votes including Sedgefield, Tower Hamlets, West Lancs, Waverley, Edinburgh, Selby, Mid-Devon, Cannock Chase and Waveney.
"Our job now is to unite all those in the 98 authorities retaining their council homes, the 50 odd councils with ALMOs who don’t want the second stage of privatisation and help those facing new privatisation proposals to see the threat off in their area.
"We need to take the open letter to Blair onto every council estate, get trade unionists signing up at work and ask every elected councillor to sign too. Ministers need to realise that come September, when the Labour Party conference meets again, the spotlight will be on whether they are capable of listening and respond to the overwhelming demand that they deliver on improving all our council homes and estates.
- Download copies of the campaign open letter to use in your area
- Get tenants, trade unionists, councillors and MPs to sign
- Put motions through tenants and trade union organisations supporting the open letter
- Ask leading tenants and union reps and councillors to write a letter to the local press urging others to sign too
- Help get the open letter circulated as widely as possible
DAVID EGGMORE spoke on behalf of UNISON|
"…Thanks to Defend Council Housing for organising this conference and I think its extremely important that we do have these events, we have an opportunity for everyone that's got an interest in the future of council housing to get together…
I'm speaking on behalf of UNISON nationally, and we represent, along with the other unions, the thousands and thousands of workers who provide services for council tenants for council estates. … but can I say we represent caretakers, cleaners, estate officers, repairs officers, surveyors and so on, everybody who provides those services, and I am quite convinced, the great majority of our members who provide those services are against the privatisation of council housing, under whatever form it arises. And certainly in UNISON we are working to turn that opposition into success - successful resistance to it. Its been going on a long time, for many years, firstly under the Tories and more recently under Labour.
We and the other trade unions, alongside tenants, tenants associations and councillors, and MPs, and Defend Council Housing, have been opposing the creeping privatisation of this sector, of housing. We've argued that under this government it is absolutely scandalous that some of the poorest sections of the community, housed in some of the least satisfactory housing, should in fact be coerced into giving up their rights as council tenants and accepting transfer or PFI or Arms Length Management Organisations, just in order to get a decent standard of housing. It is an absolute scandal… and we should all oppose that. Now over the years we have had some victories, and some defeats. I think we should acknowledge here the role played by everybody in those campaigns, in places like Sefton, Tower Hamlets and Kingston, and indeed the borough that you're in now.
What I wanted to do is just say a couple of things about where I think we are now and I'm going to take Camden as an example. Some of you may know, three years ago the council was pushing a transfer to an arms length management organisation, an ALMO. Alongside the tenants and Defend Council Housing, the unions fought against that, and the tenants rejected that proposal by 77% vote in a ballot. So that was an example and there are many other examples of successful campaigns, it does show that we can do it.
Now recently, I was thinking about the local elections, which were held two or three weeks ago, and as you may know, after 35 years of Labour control in Camden, Labour lost control and we now have no overall control. It wasn't totally unexpected. Before the election I decided to have a look at the different parties' manifestos, because I like reading fiction.
I started off with the Labour party manifesto, and the Labour party manifesto says that the Camden Labour party is in full support of the fourth option, direct public investment in the development and improvement of council housing. No great surprise there to me. After they lost the ballot, to be fair to the Labour party in Camden, they turned round and said to the government, 'Look, we argued for what you wanted us to argue for, the tenants have rejected it, now we want the money to improve council housing as it stands.' They haven't got it of course, but to be fair to them, that's what they've done, they've campaigned for that. So no surprise there then.
I looked at the Liberal Democrat manifesto and the Liberal Democrat manifesto said, and I was a little bit surprised, they're in favour of the fourth option. They want the government to provide direct investment in the improvement and development of social housing as well. This is the Camden Liberal Democrats… So then I looked at the Tory manifesto, Camden conservatives. And they're in support of the fourth option! These are the people who started transfer of council housing, and in Camden they're in support of the fourth option. Now I'm under no illusions that what they say in their manifesto is what they will do when they get into office.
But the very fact that they all feel they have to say that tells us something, it tells us - that we've won the argument, on the basis of an objective assessment of the financial facts, on the basis of a fair approach to the housing needs of our community, on the basis of having proper democratic accountability, we have won the argument that the fourth option is the right thing to do. .. and I pay tribute to everybody who's brought that about, because that wasn't the position ten years ago, we've actually won that argument convincingly. That doesn't mean to say we've won the battle by any means of course, and we know we've got a lot more battles to come, but I think that means we can congratulate our selves that we've come so far, that Camden conservatives have to say they are in favour of large scale direct investment in council housing in Camden, and not just 'privatise the lot'.
We don't stop here - there will be more campaigns; the ballots will go on, we will have to produce a response on a local basis to the funded propaganda onslaughts which we always get in these campaigns, run by councils to persuade people to sell their birthrights in their own homes. Those campaigns will have to go on. And I want to make two promises on behalf of UNISON. First of all we will continue to support the campaign against privatisation of council housing. That's very simple, our conferences year after year regularly vote for that. Secondly… as we don't win every battle where in fact council housing is privatised or moved to an ALMO, we will not be deserting our members we will not be deserting the tenants who transferred…"
REG EDWARDS is a Labour Councillor in Melton Keynes active in Milton Keynes DCH|
"I feel that the DCH, the Defend Council Housing campaign, has done a wonderful job. But having won the vote in Milton Keynes by an overwhelming majority, I don't think that we should rest there. Remember this is the third time they've come at us, the third time. So, I do feel that if there is a move afoot, particularly if there's a change of government, there won't be a fourth option. You can forget about the fourth option, if we get a change of government. Its up to us now, to actually work and be united, within the Labour movement and all the forces that agree with the DCH campaign, we need to work together.
I'd just like to say that the Prime Minister has created a new Department for Communities and Local Government, under the leadership of Ruth Kelly. And I feel that Alan, the committee, and indeed the ministers we've got in parliament and the trade unions collectively should be speaking to Ruth Kelly. Because now we've got a new move afoot, Prescott isn't doing the job, and hopefully we've got a clean start. Hopefully she can see the views that we're trying to express every time at conferences, which we do.
Looking at things generally, I'll just give you an insight into Milton Keynes. You can't believe that Milton Keynes - everyone thinks it's a new town; actually inaugurated in 1964 by Harold.. Wilson - at that time, 1964, under Harold Wilson, he inaugurated three new towns, Milton Keynes, Telford and Peterborough. Milton Keynes, people think that there's lots of homes, we have people continuously in bed and breakfast - they don't house them in Milton Keynes, the bed and breakfast isn't in Milton Keynes, it's in Dunstable, Luton and Bedford. We aren't in control, Labour, of Milton Keynes Council, we wouldn't do that. Quite incredible what people will do. And the other thing which is people come there and they think there's lots of houses. There aren't lots of houses. We have thousands on the waiting list. Absolutely thousands on the waiting list. Homelessness; great deal of homelessness, and a great deal of people that are actually living rough. Can't believe that in Milton Keynes but its actually a fact. And I think myself that what we need to do, is the necessity of building council houses, getting back to the norm, and indeed investing in council housing. This has been said, I don't want to reiterate what other people have said, but I feel that we need to go down that road, and have a clear-cut understanding with the new leadership of the DCLG. And I do feel that personally if we can gain her support, and gain the support of parliament, and indeed Michael is doing a great deal of work, I do know, and others, I do feel that that's a prime thing. Now having won the vote in Milton Keynes by 72.1% majority, to stay with the council, that was our third time, and they'll come back a fourth time, I'm sure they will. The government seem to be hell bent on getting rid of council houses. Otherwise we'd have a level playing field as Michael said, which we haven't got. They seem to be putting money into associations and ALMOs but not indeed council housing. In Milton Keynes they're allocating us £7.2 million MRA - that's major repairs allowance, each year. At the moment we're netting about £13 million. But by 2010 I don't think we're going to meet the standard that the government require. So the other option is prudential borrowing, but we can't borrow, so actually, they're saying to us, we want you to achieve this, but they're not allowing us the right way of doing it. …
The other thing in Milton Keynes, you can't believe this, but some of you will remember the 1960's, the Rackman era. Well the Rackman era is back. In Milton Keynes now they're buying up properties, they've got consortiums of people that are buying up the properties, refurbishing the properties and actually then letting them out. The lowest rent is £149 per week. That's the lowest of these properties that I've found, talking about a three-bed. The other big thing in Milton Keynes is, the same sort of people, they've got the houses in multiple occupation, what we call HMOs. And HMOs are being created like no-one's business. They're actually buying houses where they can convert them into bedsits and then they've got communal facilities for all those people in those flats. So that's another key issue which we need …
I would ask Michael indeed, together with other ministers, and indeed the DCH committee, to actually sit down with Ruth Kelly and go through all the issues, we need to do that. And though I'm a Labour party member and holding a card, we got a lot more other people involved in DCH that are actually interested the same as we are, and we all sing from the same hymn sheet, so actually jointly we can muster our troops and get together, build a platform strong enough to take them on, and say 'enough's enough, get back to where we were, get back to building council houses, and put the money in the same as you are in associations and indeed in ALMOs.' Thank you."
MIKE TANSEY is now an independent Councillor in Sunderland after having the Labour Whip withdrawn for speaking out against the experience of stock transfer|
"…..I've been bullied by the Sunderland Labour group, I no longer hold the Labour whip, simply because I've brought issues to the public debate... into the public domain, issues that the residents of my ward have come to me with. Four times I was disciplined by the Labour group, all for honestly representing the views of the people who elected me. I was told on good authority I wouldn't be on the panel to stand in 2007, when I'm next up for re-election. So I went independent, it was the only option I had… I was bullied out of the Labour Party because I had the temerity to support Defend Council Housing as well as criticising Sunderland Housing Group.
At the last count there were 19,000 people on the waiting list in Sunderland, this is what 5 years of a registered social landlord have brought to us. Now the biggest problem is, or one big problem is….the sinister agenda of this registered social landlord is really coming to the fore now they've …barred full time officers from Unison going into the company; so much for the promise to staff that nothing would change on transfer, so much for TUPE when the staff came across from the council, everything was going to be hunky-dory, nothing was going to change, and he's effectively tried to undermine the whole fabric of the trade unions within that group.
I've been speaking in different places throughout the country, as well as the north-east region and many people agree that SHG ought to be called BHG …the bargepole housing group because no one wants to touch them if there's anyone here from [Olswangs] which I've had correspondence with in the past, that description came from Walls himself, everything I say today's true. Shout up if you want me to speak slower or come and speak to me at the end.
Sunderland Housing Group have recently asked Sunderland Council, who hold a veto on certain aspects of their constitution to dispense with the requirement to hold ballots for Tenant Board members….and they duly obliged, the tenant representation on the board now consists only of people SHG are comfortable with and who will not ask any awkward questions
The Chief Exec Peter Walls is spending a small fortune of tenants money in trying to silence critics, and there are many of them…after all Walls has ensured there is a lot to be critical about. His salary of £155k… his partner is a director as is his nephew...
In Sunderland prior to 2001 we could have voted out off office every member of the Housing committee if we wished but no one can vote Walls out, no one can use Freedom of Information to obtain ANYTHING about this sleazy business, they are exempt…so much for Tony Blair's promise of honest, transparent open government
All I can say is, if you are facing a ballot for an LSVT vote against, give them the bums rush, do anything you can to stop this crazy situation going on, and campaign for the fourth option, thank you."
EILEEN SHORT is a Tower Hamlets tenant and leading member of DCH|
"It's time the government listened to tenants. I think that is the thing, that's the real message - it's time they listened to us.
We, council tenants throughout Britain, are angry, and getting angrier. There is a systematic attempt to rob us of the rights that we have currently. When my Mum's family were offered their first council house in Birmingham, she still remembers running the tap, just to see what running water in your own house was like.
When I was first given, or got hold of, the tenancy to a council flat when I'd moved to London, this was, if you like, my ticket to be able to work in the legitimate economy, afford to pay my rent, and raise my children.
A council tenancy is still, for millions of people in Britain, the only way they can afford to live in the town where you are and to work and pay your way. So for a lot of us this is not about some abstract argument; this is about knowing why council housing matters. It matters for us because its more secure than any of the alternatives, and I'm sure that you like me will have talked to housing association tenants - we're always told, in the midst of fighting a stock transfer ballot, that really it doesn't make very much difference. You won't - pat on the head - you won't really notice a thing is what they say.
But if you talk to the housing association tenants who are now putting up with poorer repairs, with impossible management that they can't get hold of to see the job through, and with the threat - we had a councillor on Tower Hamlets council who's living on a six-month short term tenancy of a housing association, and said to me privately, 'I completely agree with your arguments but I don't dare to come out and say so in the council meeting, because I've only got a six month tenancy.' Now to me this sums up exactly what's wrong with housing associations, and the hold they have, and the security that we lose in the process.
But we also know that council housing is the cheapest, from my point of view, from your point of view, to have a decent quality home that you rent the cheapest way you can do it is as a council tenant. And its not only cheaper for us, its cheaper for our society to provide good quality housing.
We have in Tower Hamlets the nonsense of 23,000 people on the housing waiting list, and stock transfer proposals that involve demolishing 15 council blocks in the biggest estate in the borough, and replacing them partly with luxury housing for sale. Now whose interests does that serve? And I can tell you the one thing that the tenants in Tower Hamlets are increasingly concluding is, it's not about us, it's not about our interests, its about shifting us along and making way for something that somebody can make more money out of.
But we're also not prepared to sit on our estates and be starved and brow-beaten into despair. Because, let's not forget, before 2004, there was a thing called Daylight Robbery, where money was systematically being taken out of council housing, using a mechanism that we as tenants called the Daylight Robbery trick, to redirect the subsidy from council housing into housing benefit.
Now because there was a national outcry, because there were councils and tenants up and down the country saying this is outrageous, you're making it impossible to run council housing properly, the government changed the method but when they introduced the Major Repairs Allowance, in fact what they've done is instituted a situation by which the government takes out of council housing their guideline rent figure £6 billion and puts back in less than £6 billion. So we are paying our rent, councils are trying to run a service, but the money that's needed to keep our homes up to a decent standard is being siphoned off and used by government for other purposes!
Council housing can pay its way - and its really important that we hold this ground - because there's a whole industry designed to make us feel as though we should apologise for our existence, and that somehow we're a drain on the Exchequer and that everybody would be happier if we'd just shuffle off nicely and be grateful for a housing association tenancy if we can get one.
Well that is not on. We pay our way…. and council housing can fund the improvements and repairs that we need to keep our estates at a decent standard. And that is what tenants want, overwhelmingly, over and over again up and down the country, if you ask tenants a straight question 'do you want to stay with the council and get repairs and improvements done, or do you want another landlord?', tenants overwhelmingly say the former, we want to stay as council tenants and get the work done.
The problem is of course, that money's been systematically withheld; that council housing really for thirty years has been run ino the buffers, by a series of governments, and now we face a situation where on a lot of estates there's problems, there's windows that need replacing, there's roofs that need proper maintenance, there's work that needs doing, and tenants are at the hard end of that.
And really one of the messages today is, don't take us for mugs. I know a lot of people like to think that tenants somehow can be conned, and, you know, you can pull the wool over our eyes, well tenants, take it from me, are not stupid. We might be at the hard end, but we want to keep the rights that we've got, and we want the improvements done.
And however much the government might want to shift the focus, and make us forget about the decent homes promise that they made in the 2005 Labour manifesto, which said that all of our homes would be brought up to a decent standard - we are not forgetting that promise.
Yes, we need more council housing, we need more council housing in Tower Hamlets as much as anywhere, we have the obscenity of homeless families being put in empty former council blocks on the same landing and the council and homeless services and those tenants being forced to pay £300 per week to live in a flat that costs me £90 a week and most of that money, inevitable, is being subsidised out of public spending, this is the madhouse, we ned more housing.
But we will not, and I think we should serve notice from today, we will not be conned into thinking that because there's an urgent need in this country for more council housing that somehow current council tenants will put up with our estates being starved of investment over the next five years. We will demand and insist, and this is why the fourth option really matters, we are demanding and insisting that the money that belongs to council housing is put back into our estates. When you sell a flat under right to buy, and you charge that former tenant ….. a large sum of money - now some of that money goes straight to the government, and some of it goes to the council, and none of it necessarily goes back into council housing. Now to my mind, all of that money belongs to council housing, that flat was built and paid for out of council housing money.
So the government needs to listen. And what we need to say is, you are not going to rob us of our money any longer, you are not going to rob us of our security of tenure, we are fighting to defend our estates, and we need the money put back in - which is the essence of what the fourth option is all about - give us back the money that belongs to council housing, and let councils spend it on bringing our homes up to a decent standard. Because we're saying to tenants up and down the country, vote NO, refuse to go down the road of stock transfer; or of PFI (which somebody described as building new estates on the basis of a credit card loan, you know, mortgaging your whole future for the next 30 years on the basis of the most expensive possible way of paying for it); or the new wheeze of the Arms Length Management company (this is not the place to discuss it in detail, but we know full well even in Tower Hamlets, where the chances of them getting 2 stars is, not high let us say, the councillors are saying oh well maybe we'll consider an ALMO - an ALMO is basically the thing they come up with if they can't get you to buy a stock transfer and we know that the reason they want to push you to an ALMO is so that they can finish the job later, it's absolutely clear what the plan is); but if we are going to say NO, then we have to show to our fellow tenants that there is a way that we can get our estates improved and our homes brought up to a decent standard, and defend council housing as it ought to be not in a state of disrepair as its fallen into.
So that's our job. And that's why fighting on the estates, and winning the fourth option nationally, absolutely have to belong together. Because we're not asking tenants to put up with misery, we're saying this is not good enough, we're going to fight to stop it.
So, let's not let them rob us of our security, let's not let them rob us of the money that belongs to council housing. This might not look like much to you, but this is a council rent book, and I intend to keep it."
See reports on:
DCH Conference 2000
DCH Conference 2002
DCH Conference 2003
DCH Conference 2004
Download 2006 conference policy statement and
Open Letter to Tony Blair (other papers below)
The plenary session, chaired by Alan Walter heard from Michael Meacher MP, Jack Dromey, deputy general secretary T&G; Reg Edwards, Milton Keynes councillor; David Eggmore, UNISON London Local Government; Mike Tansey, Sunderland councillor and Eileen Short, from Tower Hamlets.
Austin Mitchell MP on a Public Accounts Committee delegation to US sent apologies along with Jenni Morrow, secretary Scottish Tenants Organisation.
Delegates split into four workshops.
Janet Sillett from the Local Government Information Unit explained how the 'fourth option' can be funded and answered questions.
Dexter Whitfield from the Centre for Public Services and Paul Burnham, a tenant involved in Haringey DCH, lead off a discussion on the 'Future of ALMOs'.
Eileen Short introduced 'Organising Effective Local Campaigns' and Lesley Carty briefed delegates on the Case Against Transfer.
45 areas were represented
Hammersmith & Fulham,
Rhondda Cynon Taff,
Neath Port Talbot,
City of London,
More conference papers...
Funding The Fourth Option |
Key Reports |
Campaign Checklist |
Community Mutuals |
Housing Benefit |
Service Charges |
Research Tools |
Tenants On Boards |
ALMO Briefing |