HOUSING - Article for ROOF Magazine - Feb 03:

Councils must make the Government live up to their rhetoric


Introducing his paper on sustainable communities, a programme of action to tackle pressing problems, the Deputy Prime Minister referred to the repairs backlog in local authority housing inherited from the Tories as if it had been eliminated. “Our first priority was to deal with the £19 billion backlog across the country” he said, adding “Now we must tackle the fundamental problems of high demand in the south and the collapse of housing demand in some of our most deprived communities”.  All good stuff and an extra £5.4 billion extracted out of the Chancellor too.  Though this is not a sum of money to be sniffed at, it is woefully inadequate to the task the Government has set itself.


Take the promise to bring all social housing up to the decency standard by 2010; far from having dealt with disrepair in council housing, a written answer from housing minister, Tony McNulty, reveals that the annual investment needed to meet this target is £3.5 billion for local authority-owned homes alone. This figure was absent from Prescott’s statement as he announced a three year programme to improve council housing totaling a mere £2.8 billion. Even adding the £2 billion for “arm’s-length management organizations” that can take over the management of council housing and £800 million in PFI credits (a sort of hire purchase whereby private companies take over the responsibility for improving and maintaining properties in return for an annual fee from tenants’ rent) does not meet the shortfall - and it is impossible to unravel the figures to tell what amount of double counting is going on.  What’s more, according to McNulty, the amount needed to achieve the same standard for homes owned by housing associations has not even been quantified.


Meanwhile, back in Birmingham, following the stock transfer debacle, Ann Power’s Housing Commission has recommend reorganization of the housing service into 35 community-based housing organizations. CBHOs, covering about 2500 properties, will take all decisions about repairs, lettings and estate management with control of 100% of the entire repairs budget and 80% of the housing management budget.  They will be “structurally and organizationally separate from the Council” but with overall policy co-ordinated through a pared down central strategic operation and area office support. The option to evolve down different pathways depending on repair and investment needs, community strengths and tenants’ choices should be available.


The similarity between this latest blueprint and the restructuring of the housing service I began whilst in charge of Birmingham’s council housing between ‘84 and ‘87 is striking.  A report from 1986 refers to a fundamental review that had been carried out to reflect the policies of the Council on devolution, decentralization to neighbourhood offices, the use of new technology and participation and consultation with the public.  New structures and the redirection of resources were to be introduced to provide a community-based service and to extend caretaking and environmental maintenance.  It didn’t happen.  Decisions went back to the centre and responsibility for different elements of the service was given to a raft of assistant directors, with confusing lines of responsibility.  Compulsory competitive tendering did not help, but the serial mismanagement by officials with the best line in quick fixes and their gullible political “bosses” has been the main problem.  Year on year, tenants became more and more disillusioned by the meaningless promises that were made to them whilst staff morale slumped because they had no power to deliver the services they knew tenants want.


The Commission recommendations on structure need to be taken forward to improve efficiency but the early signs on implementation are not good.  The jobs that are going are those of housing officers and concierges (a service I introduced) who are being redesignated tenancy support officers to make use of a new pot of funding being made available by the Government under the heading “supporting people”.  The lost posts are to be covered by combining functions between offices (for example the Fold and Cotteridge) so that officers are responsible for larger areas – the exact opposite of the Commission’s recommendations to move staff out of head office into local communities. 


It is also very disappointing that the Commission has not been prepared to criticize the Government’s unfair policies towards council tenants, in particular the refusal to provide adequate funding for direct investment in council housing.  Despite the overwhelming vote by tenants against stock transfer, the Commission has suggested local stock transfers as the only means of attracting sufficient Government funding, whether or not this is what tenants want.  How this fits in with their emphasis on tenant involvement and empowerment is a mystery.


During the last 6 years, the Labour Government provided Birmingham only £9 million a year more than was managed by the Tories in their last 6 years of office.  Plans for the next three years offer little hope of substantial improvement on this record.   The Government must be forced to live up to its own rhetoric and really introduce a step change in housing resources and this will only happen if the Council works with its own staff and tenants to challenge Government policy.  Otherwise, the only way authorities like Birmingham can achieve the decent homes target will be to demolish, rather than refurbish, their substandard properties.  With no prospect that demolished homes will be replaced, what this will mean for the Government’s other target on reducing homelessness should be only too clear!


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