Memorandum submitted by Austin Mitchell
MP on behalf of the Parliamentary Council Housing Group (DEC 39)
The role of tenant choice; and
The link between the decent homes
target and other parts of the Government's sustainable communities
1.1 We welcome the Committee's investigation
and hope this will expose how the decent homes target is being
used to distort local debate and push local authorities and council
tenants out of council housing.
1.2 The definition of decent homes is not
responsive to local needs and conditions. It distorts real prioritieswhat
tenants wantand instead imposed a bureaucratic "tick
box" regime. Tenants with clear and defined priorities for
their homes and estates are effectively told that civil servants
know best about what is required.
1.3 "Meeting decent homes" as
an imperative for local authorities has in some cases put them
at loggerheads with tenants who have different priorities for
investment and improvement work. At another extreme it leads to
demolition of much-needed council housing in areas with long waiting
lists and homelessness.
1.4 The lack of investment in council housing
repairs and improvements over 25 years has undermined the condition
of most council housing. Short-term neglect of repairs creates
longer-term problems. Neglect of estate environment, cutting back
on estate-based caretaking and management and other staff has
worsened services and demoralised council housing workers.
1.5 This is despite the £13 million
"surplus" extracted from Housing Revenue Accounts and
used to subsidise other areas of government spending. In 2002-03
tenants on average paid £2,500 in rent but only received
£1,500 in services. That leaves £1,000 per tenant (£3.6
billion per year) that could be used to fund a massive investment
Privatisation drives up rents resulting in the
Treasury paying out more in Housing Benefit. UNISON estimates
that stock transfers since 1997 have cost the Exchequer £249
million a year in additional housing benefit support.
1.6 The quickest, most reliable and best
value for money way for local authorities to meet a locally-agreed
set of priorities for improving council housing is through direct
investment in council housing.
1.7 Government is still seeking, however,
to insist that any new investment needed to make good the backlog
of repairs and improvements must come via stock transfer, PFI
or Arms Length Management Organisations.
1.8 Real choice for tenants requires a level
playing field for investment opportunities. Tenants must be free
to choose the option that best meets their needs and preferencesincluding
the choice of remaining as council tenants with investment available
to improve their homes. Without this, tenants are justified in
calling the process "blackmail" not choice.
1.9 If money is available to subsidise costly
and time-consuming privatisation and half-way privatisation measures,
we would ask the committee to consider and put to government the
question council tenants all over Britain are asking: why can
that money not be spent directly on improving council housing?
2.1. Decent homeswhat tenants want
Tenants and many others want to see first-class,
modern council housing available for all who need it.
But at local level tenants who pay for council
housing have no say over priorities for improvement works, despite
all the talk of tenant-led change. Of course tenants want new
kitchens and bathrooms. But there may be other needs which are
higher priority locally. On some estates new lifts, smoke alarms,
concierge services and youth clubs are the most pressing need
and decent homes targets need to be flexible enough to include
In areas of high overcrowding and homelessness
tenants and local electors may regard development of more council
housing as the most urgent priority. As research by Ambrose and
others in Stepney and elsewhere shows, for tenants health, housing
and education are inextricably linked. But in many areas councils
are in danger of narrow-mindedly pursuing a government target
defined by civil servants instead of responding to tenants' local
2.2 Targets used to break up council housing
The Sustainable Communities Plan attempts to
impose stock transfer, PFI or ALMO as the only sources of new
investment in existing council housing. This is not based on any
sound financial case (as the NAO and PAC reorts showsee
below). Instead we are offered two justifications: that these
changes will increase tenants' involvement, and that housing services
benefit by separating strategy from day to day management. No
evidence is offered to support either justification, and much
existing evidence challenges and contradicts these arguments.
So achieving decent homes targets has become
another stick to beat councils and tenants into accepting a change
of landlord, the remortgaging of council housing at exhorbitant
cost/risk through PFI, or the costly half-way privatisation of
Arms Length Management.
2.3 Local impact: Arbitrary and regressive
The impact of decent homes targets is not producing
consistent progress in areas of most need. Instead we currently
Liverpool and Birmingham City Councils,
among others, making clear that they cannot meet and are not served
by the decent homes target;
these and other councils considering
or planning the demolition of council homes as the only means
of meeting decent homes standarddespite local demand for
more council housing;
reports of London authorities which
cannot meet decent homes targets even if they pursue stock transfer,
PFI or ALMO;
the Leader of Halton Borough Council
and others saying they want to continue managing good quality
council housing but need investment to make this possible;
Sir Jeremy Beecham of the Local Government
Association highlighting "the pressure on councils to transfer
"3 star" council housing
departments in Hammersmith and Fulham, Bolton, Camden where tenants
have expressed the preference for staying with the council with
investment for improvements, being forced instead towards ALMOs;
Grimsby, Macclesfield and other councils
which can meet decent homes targets but are intent on pursuing
stock transfer despite the resistance of local tenant organisations.
So the decent homes PSA target, as implemented
through the Sustainable Communities Plan, has an arbitrary impact
which does not direct public or other investment to areas of greatest
need. Indeed in some areas of the most acute need, such as Birmingham,
Liverpool and parts of inner London it is leading directly to
the demolition of council housing despite acute need for this
housing locally. These perverse outcomes of the policy as implemented
are the result of a dogmatic refusal to invest directly in council
2.4 Decent homes need investment
With an estimated £20 billion backlog in
council housing repairs and improvements, the decent homes focus
on improving condition highlights the need for significant sustained
In the context of the Sustainable Communities
Plan, the decent homes target is highjacked to rule out any real
choice for councils and tenants. The SCP attempts to rule out
the option of council housing staying under local authority control
and management, with sustained direct investment to address the
backlog of repairs and improvements and more.
The principles of publicly-funded investment
in publicly-owned council housing are not discreditedcouncil
housing is the most efficient and equitable way to develop the
homes we need, to the standard we need, at affordable rents, providing
quality housing for all who need it including all essential service
The problems affecting council hosing are the
direct result of under-funding, as the decent homes target and
SCP effectively show: with investment council housing can again
become good quality housing of choice.
2.5 Council housingthe money is there
but the rules are rigged
A Level Playing Field needed
Council housing generates more income than is
spent on its management, maintenance and improvement. The inequitable
treatment of council housing compared to other forms of housing
has caused and perpetuated the problems of underinvestment which
are now being exploited to undermine council housing and abolish
Daylight Robbery for Council tenants only
£13 billion has been siphoned out of council
Housing Revenue Accounts in recent years and used to subsidise
other areas of government spending. Outcry at what tenants call
this "Daylight Robbery" of their rents has led the Government
to change the mechanism by which so-called "surpluses"
are extracted from HRAs. However government has retained the power
to claw back from council HRAs what is regards as "unnecessary"
fundseven where these funds are need to meet decent homes
or other local improvement targets. Money taken from the HRA in
this way is not even ring-fenced to pay for council housing improvements.
In 2002-03 tenants on average paid £2,500
in rent but only received £1,500 in services. This left £1,000
per tenant (£3.6 billion per year) that could be used to
fund a massive investment programme. For 2003-04 the figure is
slightly lower but the effect and potential is the same.
Through LSVT this £1,000 is immediately
released to the new landlord. This is a major disparity and a
financial driver of stock transfer. It creates "unfair competition".
We cannot see how it can be justified. The release of this £1,000
pa per council home would provide funding for the much-needed
investment in existing council stock to create financial parity
and real "choice" for tenants.
Public money is being diverted into wasteful
subsidies which are a further incentive to stock transfer. £800
million is budgeted for 2003-04 to write off debt to make sell-offs
profitable. This is almost as much as the total £842 million
budget for housing credits to fund investment in all council homes.
If a national programme of debt relief was applied
to council housing, with government taking responsibility for
HRA debt in the same way as it does for stock transfer RSLs, councils
would be in a "fair competition" with RSLs and would
be more efficient at improving council housing, thereby maximising
value for money. Backlog repairs could all be addressed rapidly,
and funds released to finance a programme of new and improved
Other subsidies to privatisation
Last year £65 million was spent on "fees
of the army of consultants, surveyors, solicitors and advisers"
involved in promoting stock transfer, PFI and ALMO (Social Housing,
July 2003). This is often supported by the work of local authority
staff paid from other budgets. This huge physical and financial
resource is directed to present one side of the case in the "choice"
facing council tenants.
Privatisation drives up rents resulting in the
Treasury paying out more in Housing Benefit, UNISON estimates
that stock transfers since 1997 have cost the Exchequer £249
million a year in additional housing benefit support. This money
could be used instead to fund a new "investment allowance"
to provide a revenue stream enabling councils to borrow to fund
investment themselves. It would make the new "right to borrow
in the Local Government Bill" a practical solution to give
tenants real choice in how "decent homes" which meet
local priorities might be achieved.
2.6 Direct investment is best value for money
The report by the Commons Public Accounts Committee
on stock transfer endorses and adds to the National Audit Office's
critical report on the subject. Calculating the extra cost to
the public purse of achieving decent homes and other improvement
targets via stock transfer, the PAC report says "the additional
cost of transfer is likely to be larger than the £1,300 per
home calculated by the Office [NAO]".
The Committee concludes that stock transfer
is bad value for money, pointing out that "cost neutrality
will not have been achieved in practice", that transfer has
"led to the undervaluation of the homes transferred so far,
resulting in a great contribution from the taxpayer than was necessary
to deal with, for example, the backlog of repair".
It is also sceptical of the Government's non
financial justification for stock transfer, questioning any improved
tenant choice, participation or increased satisfaction.
If the decent homes targets are to be achieved
while respecting the right of council tenants and local authorities
to democratic choice in this process, we need to reassert and
make real the option of investment in directly-managed council
housing, as tenants are demanding.
2.7 The alternatives and their problems
Transfer, PFI and ALMO all attempt to break
up and/or replace council housing with new models more dependent
on private funding in the short or long term. The costs and risks
associated are borne by the public sector and by tenants. Decent
homes is being used as a mechanism to pursue this end.
Tenants lose security
"The Council of Mortgage Lenders this week
said the plan to do away with mandatory grounds for eviction would
be a `bad move'. Housing Associations currently have the power
to obtain possession orders where tenants have run up two months'
rent arrears".Housing Today, 7 October 2003.
RSLs have higher renta and other charges, evictions,
borrowing and management costs are higher and one in four homes
do not meet decent homes standard. Transfer RSLs are an inefficient
drain on public funds.
RSLs are not accountable to local or national
government. There is no effective mechanism for directing them
"strategically", despite significant public funding
to them. Their costs (including senior executive pay) are not
Transfer RSLs can and do fail to deliver on promises
Transfer deliver investment relatively randomlyRSLs
not accountable to tenants. Even where tenant board membersgoverned
by company law act as directors. Not usually elected by tenants.
Few RSLs have representative tenant organisation.
Pressure on RSLs: to compete with private sector
developers for funding, for paid board members, to merge and rationalise
(leaving 150 large RSLs doing all new housing development), to
respond directly to demands of lenders.
PFI is new in housing, but has an appalling
record in schools and hospitals. The National Audit Office says
claims that PFI is value for money are based on "errors,
irrelevant or unrealistic analysis and pseudo-scientific mumbo-jumbo."
Costs escalate between bid and final contract: reportedly by over
60% in Sandwell.
Financial risks are effectively underwritten
by government with yet more public money. Tenants are more directly
exposed to other risks, as when major sub-contractor goes bust
and all work is suspended (as in many current school PFI contracts
including Wigan and Tower Hamlets). Tenants have no right to a
ballot on PFI proposals. Public land is often "gifted"
to developers with homes demolished to increase profits.
Arms Length Management Organisations is the
government's latest proposed way of breaking up council housing,
introduced in face of tenants' growing resistance to stock transfer
and PFI. A separate company is set up to run homes which remain
at this stage council owned. The carrot is an uncertain amount
of extra funding for five years. They involve large set up costs,
undermine democratic control and accountability (with a board
on which tenant reps are outvoted and bound by corporate responsibility).
ALMO could be privatised by the "levering
in" of private finance (high interest loans from banks) with
no transfer of stock and no requirement for a ballot.
The best-managed council housing with 3-star
audit rating is being forced to become ALMO (in Bolton, Camden,
Hammersmith and Fulham) despite the wish of tenants to remain
in directly-managed council housing.
Opposite of "joined up thinking"separating
housing completely from other council services (social services,
education, youth, etc). This flies in the face of all research
pointing to need to connect services better.
Repairs, improvement and support services are
more likely to be outsourced (privatised): Hounslow ALMO has privatised
its grounds maintenance, Barnsley ALMO its repairs service, Kensington
and Chelsea ALMO its legal services.
ALMO expenditure is money taken from council
housing as a whole. It is "on balance sheet" public
If this money is available to help achieve decent
council housing standards, why can't it go into council housing
ALMO CASH CAME
The Office of the Deputy Prime Minister managed
to find an extra £250 million a year to fund arm's-length
management organisations by a clever "switch of resources".
Local authorities are required to set aside 75% of capital receipts
and further money as part of their housing revenue account to
cover debt to the government. This latter "minimum revenue
provision"around 2% of an authority's "credit
ceiling"is what the Treasury has agreed to allow to
be freed up for capital investment. This has been possible because
of the introduction of the £1.59 billion major repairs allowance
two years ago to allow councils to invest in housing. The ODPM
argued to the Treasury that this funding stream meant that the
minimum revenue provision was no longer required.
The "Decent Homes" public service
agreement target is being implemented in a way which overrules
the ongoing government commitment to "tenants' choice".
This results from the unfair financial competition against council
In this context the "decent homes"
targets risk being discredited in tenants' eyes as a cynically
manipulated manoeuvre to end council housing.
This situation is not justified financiallythe
fair funding of council housing would be a prudent use of public
To achieve locally-agreed decent homes standards
for all council housing requires measures to create a level playing
field and give substance to the fourth option tenants and many
local authorities want: council homes remaining under direct council
management with substantial investment available directly without
strings attached. This will give tenants real choice in implementing
decent homes targets.
What precise budget is used to meet
the additional costs to government of "overhanging debt"
transferred from local authorities due to transfer? [what funding
available for PFI credits, and how much made available to underwrite
PFI schemes in housing and other sectors including health, education?]
How much does this amount to and is it an equitable and justified
use of public funds?
What is the total cost to local and
national government of stock transfer so far?
What is the total "Daylight
Robbery" difference between council rental income and allocated
expenditure on management and maintenance and MRA? Why is this
not used to fund direct investment in council housing? How does
government justify transferring these so-called "surpluses"
to transfer landlords?
Liverpool Council's stock options survey estimated
that it would cost around £117 million to carry out the necessary
repairs to bring 13,000 of its homes up to the decency standard
. . . Cabinet member for housing Flo Clucas said neither arm's-length
management nor the private finance initiative looked like viable
options, and the lack of alternatives available meant councils
had their "hands tied behind their backs". "We
certainly do not have enough money to bring the properties up
to the standard," she said. "It's highly unlikely that
we'll be able to do so. We believe there needs to be some flexibility
Birmingham Council's chief executive Lin Homer
told Inside Housing there was no quick fix for the city's housing
service. Ms Homer said: "I do not think we are going to turn
around housing in the city overnight.
"My focus is not particularly on what we
do in the star rating this year, it's on what we do in the city
over the next few years," she said. "We do not think
we are in it for quick wins."
Frances O'Grady deputy general secretary, TUC
"The TUC wants to see a level playing field
for housing investment. Sadly the Local Government Bill will encourage
precisely the opposite. Councils that transfer their stock will
have debts wiped out. Councils that do not transfer will continue
to service their housing debt.
"Good quality housing is central to ensuring
a decent quality of life. Government must deal with the backlog
in all public housing repairs, much sooner than 2010. There are
twice as many families live in council housing as in housing association
housing. So it's pretty obvious that to solve the problem the
government has got to invest in council housing".