Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Defend Council Housing

Today, a new report for the government will make recommendations about the future of council housing. From reports this morning, it looks as if the report will be a serious blow to the campaign to Defend Council Housing. I didn't catch the details, but in a BBC interview this morning, DHC campaigner Carol Swords was bitterly angry about it, explaining: "Twenty years ago, I was desperate, I needed a home and I got one. What about the person who's desperate tomorrow?" The Mirror's report is unequivocal: 3 million council tenants face boot. They suggest that Ruth Kelly is about to get rid of the right to remain in one's council house for life. I don't know if this is true or not, but it is certainly the case that the government is eager to push privatisation and market housing. It has long been their policy to abolish council housing, and it is expected that Ruth Kelly will raise the spectre of means-testing, so that what they hope is a diminished stock of council housing is reserved for the very poor. It is strange - on the one hand, Kelly's supporters and defenders insist that council housing is a ghetto-ised system, and people need to be freed from it. On the other, the government seems intent on making it more ghetto-ised. Meanwhile, those who aren't sufficiently poor will have to rent or buy on the market, and that'll cost you. It will cost the Treasury too, since they are obliged to subsidise homes for key workers in order that they can subsist. They are also looking at ways to remove rent controls and introduce other market measures into the council housing system.

And no wonder the charity Shelter is worried about housing security: as most experts in the field will tell you, the primary causes of homelessness are a nexus of low wages, benefit shortfalls and the unleashed housing market (indeed, if memory doesn't completely fail me, I believe that precisely such a case was put in a book by two Shelter workers in the mid-1990s). Introducing further insecurity, privatisation and higher rents is bound to exacerate the problem. While the number of rough sleepers has according to official statistics diminished sharply in the last ten years, the number of households recognised as homeless has increased to well over 100,000, and it is estimated that there are 380,000 'hidden' homeless households in the UK at any one time. See Crisis for statistics. Naturally, this is the sort of homelessness that goes through the roof during an economic downturn, when the bastards start reposessing in the hundreds of thousands. It is the pool of people at the bottom of this 'housing ladder' who are most vulnerable that the government wants to expand.

To coincide with today's report, DHC has produced a booklet [PDF], which makes the case for expanded council housing. The report notes that several select committees and the Audit Commission have examined the government's policy of stock transfer and found it bad value for money. It notes that although the government is transferring billions of pounds received from rent to what it claims is 'historic debt', there several billions unaccounted for. What is more, the government is pushing up council rents to match those of the 'social landlord' sector, and introducing separate service charges, all to make transfer more attractive. Not only does this have a devastating effect on tenants on low income, it actually costs the Treasury through increased housing benefits payouts. So, while making off with billions, the government is also going out of its way to subsidise a policy that is costly to millions of council house tenants. And they have the nerve to do so in the name of efficiency: they say that to fund council housing by direct investment would cost £12 billion, adding that this would result in higher interest rates and inflation - and, Ruth Kelly says, raising the spectre of 1979, "get back to the days when we were playing with the stability of the economy". This is a government that wants to spend an additional £70 billion in defense. The Public Accounts Select Committee has already pointed out that stock transfers are more expensive than direct investment, while there have been no official costings to back up this £12 billion figure. Further, if they insist on raising rents, the least they could do is ring-fence the increased income from them for reinvestment in council housing, but they refuse to do so. With matchless venality, this government has bribed, bullied and blackmailed to force through this neoliberal agenda. They have refused to grant repairs and improvements to those tenants who didn't want their homes transferred to Arms Length Management Organisations. They have victimised council workers who oppose their policies. They have been caught engaged in smear tactics against their opponents, deliberate misinformation campaigns where they know they are losing public support.

It's important to bear in mind that in most cases where ballots have been held on stock transfers and privatisation, the public have overwhelmingly opposed it. Labour conferences have opposed it, and the trade unions are opposed to it. 260 MPs have signed an early day motion supporting the DHC campaign and its demands. The government is being defeated left, right and centre, and they're desperate to push ahead with this policy at the expense of local democracy and in the face of all opposition. The only people loudly supporting the government's policy are the Tories and their despicable Shadow Housing Minister, Michael Gove. (Yes, the neoconservative Times columnist). The policy that DHC advocates, which has the backing of MPs, councillors, tenants and trade unionists, is called the 'Fourth Option', and it is staggeringly simple. The government should provide direct investment to fund council housing for the rising number of people who cannot afford to get on the housing ladder and for those who find it impossible to get on it. This could be paid for by ring-fencing all receipts from council housing rent for reinvestment, writing off debt and funding any gap between the resources available to carry out necessary improvements, and those necessary to do so. If the government is prepared to write-off debts on the few occasions when people opt for privatisation or 'social landlords', they should be prepared to do so when tenants prefer public provision. If they want to charge more rent, it should go back into the tenants housing. There shouldn't be any other purpose to charging rent for public housing except improvement and necessary upkeep: it is ours, after all, we own it and all the rents that are paid. This option for funding doesn't even involve significant public expenditure as Ruth Kelly claims, but it would have the effect of allowing for an expansion of socially affordable housing and therefore help reduce rents in the private sector. Who stands to lose from rolling back the tide of this absurd housing market apart from landlords and investors? Why shouldn't there be an expansion of decent, affordable housing with rent tightly controlled and receipts ring-fenced for investment? Why shouldn't there be secure housing universally available?

Anyway, if you don't fancy seeing your wallet grow thinner while the rich grow fatter, I suggest you e-mail your MP and ask if they are supporting Early Day Motion 136. If not, why not? Is your elected public servant really going to let the government get away with transferring more public assets and cash to the rich? There is also a public meeting in the House of Commons tonight.