BIRMINGHAM’S HOUSING SERVICE NEEDS A FRESH START - April 2002

Stephen Byers recently announced a fresh start to tackle homelessness, pledging that by March 2004 no homeless families with children should have to live in B&B. He must therefore be breathing a sigh of relief that council tenants in Birmingham have given an overwhelming thumbs down to the proposed stock transfer that would see a quarter of homes demolished and no prospect of their replacement under the future "business plan".

That such a proposition should have been put forward demonstrates the incompetence of those behind the stock transfer plan who should have realised that when the "tenanted market value" of the stock (the price the new landlord would pay) came in at only 159 a property, the plan was dead in the water. This is because the receipt from the purchaser would have been insufficient to cover the Council’s 204 million debt breakage cost or even the 36 million bill for the stock transfer process. However, never to be put off by practicalities, they worked out that by demolishing those properties considered the most expensive to maintain they could, at a stroke of the pen, increase the value of the stock to 3000 a property, thus, surprise surprise, exactly covering their costs!

In answer to my queries about where people would live, one assistant housing director told me that they would simply disappear. Yet, for the first time since the enactment of homelessness legislation in 1977, Birmingham City Council is having to use bed and breakfast hotels to accommodate a proportion of the 3000 priority need homeless families that seek their assistance each year. A programme of 2000 demolitions a year (and the blight on the estates scheduled for demolition) would surely have seen their numbers soar and the Government’s latest target in tatters. Fortunately, Birmingham’s council tenants are not as stupid as officials like this seem to think. They reckon that the 600 million the Government is prepared to put up front to support stock transfer could be better spent by direct investment in their homes and in providing new ones. And who can blame them when, according to a written parliamentary answer I received, the whole process would provide only 351million more over 30 years than is already available – not exactly best value.

Readers will, of course be aware that, only a few days before the Birmingham vote, tenants in Glasgow did support the transfer of their homes to a housing association. Press reports from that City would seem to indicate that promoters of the scheme did not get the same level of in-depth criticism as in Birmingham. I only hope that financial arrangements north of the border mean that tenants there are getting a better deal. Though, if so, the taxpayer almost certainly isn’t. It is for this reason that the Government must change direction. There is no evidence to suggest that housing associations are more efficient or accountable landlords – only that they have been better resourced. The Government must stop the discrimination against council housing it inherited from its predecessor and provide fair funding for council housing. It must also accept that to stand any chance of keeping the promise to bring all social housing up to a decent standard, investment must increase to post war levels but over a timescale that permits the necessary increase in the capacity of the building industry. So far, even with a trebling of investment since 1997, expenditure is not set to match that of 1992/3.

As for Birmingham, the Council must give housing the same fresh start it gave its failing education department in 1993. New people must be brought in and power devolved to localities so that tenants and elected representatives can relate to people able to take decisions. Strong alliances of this nature will be the best way of ensuring that central government has to give council tenants the fair deal they deserve. Long live council housing!