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Council Housing Beware of this stealth attack on public-sector housing

Under the radar, the government is sneaking in the possibility of a new programme of 'stock transfers' of council housing to housing associations. That should be resisted at all costs, says MARTIN WICKS

THE TORIES’ social housing green paper marks a partial retreat from some of their previous policies. They have abandoned the proposal to force councils to sell off so-called higher-value homes, which would have involved confiscating the sales receipts and handing them over to housing associations to compensate them for the difference between the “real-time bidding” price and the market value.

It has also abandoned the compulsory introduction of fixed-term tenancies, though councils can still use them if they wish.

A “damp squib” this may be, as the Financial Times has described it. There is no new money for council house building but there is one proposal which, if implemented, would constitute a major threat to council housing.

Tucked away in Paragraph 81 of the green paper, in a chapter ostensibly about “empowering residents,” we find this: “We are considering a new stock transfer programme to promote the transfer of local authority housing, particularly to community-based housing associations. Would there be interest in a programme to promote the transfer of local authority housing, particularly to community-based housing associations? What would it need to make it work?”

It’s almost as if they smuggled it into a secluded corner in the hope that nobody would notice. There is no reference to it in Theresa May's preface, the Housing Secretary’s comments or the executive summary.

Stock transfer, posed as tenant “choice” was introduced by the Tories but reached its high point under New Labour, when nearly one million homes were transferred. Stock transfers were ended, at least on a large scale, when the economic crash led the New Labour government to decide that they could no longer afford debt write-off.

Cancelling the debt had been the inducement to persuade tenants to vote for transfer, since it meant that housing associations would have more money to invest in stock while councils would be allowed nothing. A parliamentary committee described this policy as blackmail. The motivation for Gordon Brown was that council-housing debt was removed from the public-sector borrowing requirement.

Of course, they could have cancelled the debt for councils but that would have been contrary to New Labour’s prejudice against council housing, which it sometimes referred to as “monopoly provision.” Under the Tories, from 2010 there were a small number of transfers of fewer than 50,000 homes, though the government was not prepared to offer a general debt write-off, so transfers have since dried up.

So why has the government floated this idea now? We don’t know. We are presented with a single paragraph with no explanation. Without a commitment to debt write-off there would be little take-up on the idea. Supporters of council housing should take it at face value as a threat to council housing. It is an idea which we need to try to kill off before it is introduced into a white paper as a definite proposal.

To the question “Would there be interest in a programme to promote the transfer of local authority housing?” we need to give a decisive No.

We should remember that when the proposal to extend right to buy (RTB) to housing associations was put forward, their industry body the National Housing Federation (NHF) rolled over before the government and agreed to a “voluntary” programme. The NHF raised no objection at the government confiscating RTB receipts from the proposed sale of “higher-value” council homes and their transfer to housing associations.

The NHF had also accepted the ending of grants for social housing for rent. The process of commercialisation of the sector has carried on apace as they have built more homes for sale on the market. Many housing associations are acting more like businesses and less like organisations with a social purpose.

Between the Tories coming to office in 2010 and the end of the financial year 2016-17, we lost 184,000 council homes in England. Around half of the councils in England have no council housing. The government cannot both “provide a further boost to the number of council homes” and transfer them to housing associations. This is sheer hypocrisy.

The absence of an outraged response to the floating of the idea of a new round of stock transfers is worrying. The chief executive of the Association of Retained Council Housing managed to write a response to the green paper without mentioning it.

Likewise, we have heard nothing thus far from Labour’s shadow housing minister John Healey. Labour needs to oppose this proposal vigorously. No doubt the Tories will hold up New Labour’s enthusiasm for stock transfer and ask why are you opposed to it now? The reply is, of course, that New Labour’s policy was fundamentally wrong.

Supporters of council housing should send in comments to the consultation and say No to a new round of transfers.

The deadline for responses is November 6 and emails should be sent to SocialHousingGreenPaper@communities.gsi.gov.uk. At the same time, it would be good to email John Healey john.healey.mp@parlisment.uk on the issue and call for Labour to unequivocally oppose a new round of transfer.

Martin Wicks is secretary of the Swindon Tenants’ Campaign Group.

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