The Guardian February 9, 2000


Britain:
Labour plans to abolish public housing

by Caroline Colebrook

Britain's Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott revealed at the end of 
January that the Department of the Environment is preparing to hive off all 
remaining council (public) housing within 10 years. Plans are now being 
drawn up to sell off the estates to non-profit making companies and housing 
associations.

But these bodies will have to survive in the private sector under market 
conditions. If they fail to balance their books they will go bankrupt and 
the properties will end up in the hands of the banks or receivers.

Only councils offer secure tenancies  and democratically elected 
landlords. At best, other bodies offer mostly short-term assured tenancies.

This means tenants can only count on the roof over their heads for six 
months or so at a time. Terms, conditions and rents can be altered often.

Most council tenants now are from low income groups who cannot possibly 
afford to buy or rent from the private sector.

The best British council housing was mostly sold off during the Thatcher 
era under the "right to buy" legislation. Where once tenants could look 
forward, after a few years or so in a tower block, to a transfer to a 
decent home with a garden, such homes have now disappeared into the private 
sector.

Council tenants are trapped in the worst homes. Decades of lack of funds 
have meant that many are now in a disgusting state of repair. Nationally 
the repairs backlog will cost L22 billion to clear.

Rents are forced up by the "daylight robbery" scam, whereby housing benefit 
for some tenants is funded from the rents of others, rather than from 
general taxation.

If this extra income was instead used to renovate the estates, there would 
be no need to sell them off.

But the Labour leadership policy is to follow what Thatcher began in 
destroying council housing because its very existence undermines rent 
levels in the private sector and denies exorbitant profits to private 
landlords.

Now the Department of the Environment is planning a "big bang" under which 
local councils will be compelled to sell off the remaining 3.2 million 
council homes by the year 2010.

A new inspection regime will be created with powers to force "under-
performing" councils to put their management services out to competitive 
tender.

The Government is unhappy that getting rid of council housing is now taking 
so long. Under present terms it would take 20 years, for example, to 
transfer all of Birmingham's 90,000 council dwellings.

The main obstacle is that, under current law, tenants have to vote to 
approve the transfer in special ballots and many tenants are rejecting the 
transfers. The government is considering removing that obstacle.

If council housing is allowed to disappear there will be no check on the 
levels of market rents. People on low incomes will be forced either into 
overcrowding or onto the streets.

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New Worker

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