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Camden New Journal - FORUM - Opinion of the CNJ
Published: 10 January 2008
Alan Walter Alan Walter
Council homes: government must put their house in order

Tenants’ groups and councillors should lead the fight against creeping privatisation if there are to be any council homes for the next generation, writes Alan Walter

TONIGHT (Thursday) tenants’ representatives from across Camden will be playing the annual game of charades at the Town Hall Joint DMC (District Management Committee) Rent Setting meeting.
We do Camden tenants a disservice by pretending that this meeting “em­powers” us to affect rents, charges and the service we get in return. This year in particular there are more reasons than ever to refuse to vote.
Opportunities for Camden tenants’ representatives to affect the budget are negligible. Government sets the target rent and allocates Camden allowances to manage and maintain council homes.
This year’s settlement is worse than ever (see below) and will mean, unless we get it changed, a rent increase double the rate of inflation plus cuts in services.
We should be demanding that government increases Camden’s allowances.
The report focuses on only a tiny part of the £173 million budget. For some reason we accept each year that the rest (including chief officer pay, employing consultants and contractors, use of council housing capital receipts etc) is set in stone.
The selective way the council takes account of our views is insulting. The last administration ig­nored us on a regular basis.
The report to this administration’s council executive in December explained that the Joint DMC overwhelming vote in May against its proposals to sell off council homes and privatise estates didn’t count because it wasn’t unanimous!
Speculation about a price crash and repossessions in the private housing market reinforces the importance of securing a long-term future for council housing. Without it we – and our children – will get squeezed out of central London.
The council’s strategy to sell homes, privatise estates and cut and contract out housing services would be a disaster in two respects: unless we get government to stop dis-investing in council housing then cuts and privatisation will become a permanent feature to make the budget stack up.
And every home sold or service worsened through cuts and privatisation increases the hollowing out of key public services.
The council has failed to get a mandate from Camden tenants for its “stock option” strategy. Executive member Chris Naylor explained in his December 20 letter to the New Journal: “This is a historic decision that reflects hard debate among councillors and officers, and is one that should not be dismissed lightly.”
With all respect, Councillor Naylor, these are our homes we’re talking about and it’s the right of Camden tenants to make the decision about our future. We have made it clear we put defending the long-term security of council housing over short-term gains.
The council has failed to win the argument at “consultation” meetings. Getting less than 1,000 responses backing “im­provements” does not amount to a mandate to sell Camden homes and privatise estates.
Tonight’s proposed rent increase as well as £6.5 million “savings” is the other side of the same coin. Cutting estate managers in the district offices and centralising services is a key element.
Two years ago we were promised a similar exercise on repairs would lead to both improvements and cost savings. The opposite has been the case.
Next up, if we let them, they want to have another go at privatising caretaking. We stopped this with a big campaign back in 2001, but they’ve nibbled away over the years.
Dedicated district staff and caretakers are an essential component of a public housing service. The alternative – being promoted by a neo-liberal lobby with its paw marks all over the Housing and Regeneration Bill – is for council estates to sink further into becoming transit camps and housing of last resort for those who “can’t do better”.
The solution is not for tenant reps to sanction rent increases tonight and sit by while they cut, centralise and privatise services, sell off homes and take us on estate by estate with their “regeneration” proposals. If we all agree that council housing is worth defending we have to draw a line behind which we all unite. In practical terms this means distributing the Camden Defend Council Housing newspaper and ensuring the Stand Up For Council Housing posters are displayed on every estate with pride. If every tenants’ association asked its tenants to sign our open letter opposing the council’s proposals, the council’s position would become untenable.
We should refuse to endorse a rent-setting proposal tonight and demand that the council join with tenants to demand that government negotiate a new financial framework for council housing. This has to be based on ring-fencing all the revenue and capital receipts, and a level playing field on debt write-off and gap funding.
When we met Housing Minister Yvette Cooper in October she indicated acceptance that the current housing finance regime is unsustainable. Just before Christmas she formally announced a review.
The trouble is that she’s talking about this reporting back in 2009!
It would be more than naïve to just wait. But taking this fig leaf in good faith we (Camden tenants and all the political parties on the council) should be demanding an interim solution. There are two forms this could take.
In 2003 government research showed it was massively underfunding Management and Maintenance (M&M) allowance given to councils. Based on the Building Research Establishment’s findings, government is today only funding 51 per cent of need (nationally). It has been siphoning off even more from tenants’ rents to the Treasury. It’s a national scandal!
Getting government to agree to increase M&M funding for 2008, in lieu of the full review of housing finances, would help plug the short-term gap. It’s a reasonable demand and winnable if everyone gets behind it.
Yvette Cooper has now admitted there are 13 councils which are in difficulty financing a strategy to meet the government’s Decent Homes standard. They could now decide to move some way towards the level playing field everyone has been demanding by providing some gap funding and take over servicing the council’s historic housing debt.
By refusing to vote for a rent increase tonight we would make a clear statement to government.
It would form the basis for a joint delegation of tenants’ reps, councillors and MPs to demand a meeting with Ministers to reach an acceptable settlement that respects the choice of Camden council tenants.

• Alan Walter is a Kentish Town tenants leader and chairman of the Defend Council Housing pressure group

Send your letters to: The Letters Editor, Camden New Journal, 40 Camden Road, London, NW1 9DR or email to The deadline for letters is midday Tuesday. The editor regrets that anonymous letters cannot be published, although names and addresses can be withheld. Please include a full name, postal address and telephone number. Letters may be edited for reasons of space.

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