Here's an article I wrote recently (whilst still a cllr) for ROOF Shelters Housing Magazine. Many thanks to Shelter for allowing me to reprint. Think its worth sharing on here in terms of all the housing issues which clearly are about to be put under even more strain with the ConDem budget
A couple of years back I wrote an article for ROOF about the increased involvement of the private sector and private sector methods in housing. So where are we four years later? And what’s my perspective as a (previous) local authority councillor representing an inner City part of London
Over the years, local councils have been stripped of many of their powers over different services and the money available to them has been cut by central government. The Tory prime minister Margaret Thatcher, who began this process, famously said, “I must take more power to the centre to stop socialism”.
What she really meant was that services like the NHS, state education, council housing and other aspects of the welfare state which protect people against the effects of ‘market competition’, should be opened up to private companies to make profits from public needs. But as people won’t generally vote to hand over vital services to ‘profit-first’ companies, the democratic control over services exercised through elected local councils had to be eroded.
So lets have a look at how such methods, first pursued by Thatcher and subsequently continued by New Labour have impacted on housing in Lewisham Council. Lewisham council has a Labour majority council (just) with a directed elected Labour Mayor, Sir Steve Bullock. It has set up Lewisham Homes as a management entity to manage its stock. Lets take stock, afterall it is probably fair to say that it’s a model that is replicated elsewhere in the country. The arrival of Lewisham Homes saw the loss of large numbers of staff, housing office closures as well as the loss of traditional allocated housing officers. The composition of the management board of this arms lengths housing organization also meant in practice that tenants and lease holders were always in a minority on the board. Local ‘business people’ would be in the majority with highly paid council executives and other officials. Where is the democracy in this model? Election of the board was ruled out and leaseholder views were sidelined.
Thereafter Lewisham Councils’ housing policy sought to increase housing supply, widen housing choice, manage demand, develop the private rented sector and expand housing offers whilst greening homes and neighbourhoods.
Each element of this policy can be debated in its own right. A particular issue is the ‘managing demand’ element. For example in order to manage demand the new housing allocations policy, (point 2.3.1, pages 13 and 14, 2009, for those who want to check it out), now states that those with an income, or savings of assets of £16k are no longer eligible to register for housing. Even if those assets belong to a member of your family who forms part of the household. This could mean that elderly people who have been saving all their working life or even if you own a car worth this amount! This paltry amount is considered to be a significant asset according to the housing directors. Of course 16k is far from a significant asset or wage and in reality those earning this amount, will already know what it means to be part of the working poor. Now they will be poor and without even the safety net of secure and affordable housing. During this same period we saw a major Housing Association in conjunction with Lewisham Council spend a million pounds on a housing stock transfer campaign that was rejected. A simple question frames this wasted opportunity – ‘How many repairs would that failed campaign have paid for?’
Additionally a system called Home Search was set up in Lewisham which in practice meant that irrespective of your needs you queue along with everyone else and bid every week for available properties. So everyone is equally left waiting forever for housing. Is this what is meant by the ‘Choice’ agenda that New Labour Councils have embraced with gusto? This model of provision reminds me of a Stalinist state where there is one loaf of bread in the bakery. But its ok, as everyone is forming an orderly queue around the corner and as far as the next block for that matter. This system just isn’t delivering, as those on the waiting list will confirm. Hence the cynical need by Lewisham to ‘manage the waiting list’ by effectively crossing people off it.
Down grading your priority housing score.
Oh and then there is the banding issue as well – whereby you re-label bands A, B, C and D as 1, 2, 3 and 4. At the same time as you move over to this system, you use it as an opportunity to downgrade a priority case as I have witnessed recently. In such a system it becomes almost incidental that someone should be disabled such that their disabled ‘sticker’ gets left of their housing notes. Why after all when you have ‘a choice’ based system would their disability factor into a decision to provide priority housing?
What’s the alternative?
Our housing provision is in a mess, with 17,000 plus on the waiting list in Lewisham. Many tenants are living in overcrowded homes that are unsuitable for their and their families needs and many are living in disrepair. Yet did it have to be this way? Even by the summer of 2008, there were still 108 councils that had not transferred their council homes to housing associations or set up Arms Length Management Organisations. Yet these organisations were still managing to carry out Decent Homes improvements.
But rather than be critical of the failures lets set out what we ought to be doing. Lets have a system where the repair programme is managed by in house staff, where rents would stay reasonable, where there was real democratic control by tenants (not unelected unaccountable boards). Lets combine a new house building programme with local skills training for youth especially and lets look at getting rid of the disasterous PFI housing programmes. Lets be bold and use our council status to engage in reasonable prudential borrowing. Lets use the general funds and council reserves along with any welcomed central government investment. This would be a huge brilliant start. It has not been missed by people that the government released money very quickly for the banks when it was required. It can be done. Besides it all makes economic sense to do these things. All councils borrow money, at cheaper rates and more securely (because they are public bodies) than commercial organisations like housing associations.
Some of us have tried to push these policies. In 2008, a proposal by myself and another socialist councillor argued for £13m to be released for housing repairs across a large section of the borough. This would have added just 3% to Lewisham’s overall borrowing plans. This was rejected by the other councillors. In comparison ruling councillors in Lewisham had borrowed £29.4m in 2006-07 to pay-off a Hyde debt from a Lewisham-Hyde ‘partnership project’ to refurbish just 149 homes on Lewisham’s St John’s estate. This showed that councils want to hand over council homes to housing associations even when it isn’t cost-effective to do so.
Councils still have enormous powers and responsibilities. Lewisham council still controls a budget of well over one billion pounds, spent on services from housing to schools, youth clubs, libraries, adult social care, crime reduction, sports centres, highways maintenance and refuse collection, to name but a few. It also has legal powers, over some non-council provided services for example, that it can exercise for our benefit. What councils do, and what councillors do, can still massively affect the quality of our daily lives. They certainly don’t have to accept every dictate from central government to cut or privatise our services. They have a choice.
Frank Dobson MP recently wrote in ROOF about the good old days of tenant empowerment. I share his sentiment for those days of collective action. Frank goes on to (rightly) criticise the ‘Lib Dem/Tory coalition running Camden council’ that ‘is selling vacant flats and houses to the highest bidder.’ He is right to take it personally as he states. But the record of his own party on housing is also questionable especially in Lewisham.