Housing crisis hits most vulnerable

Today six million people live in roughly 2.5 million council homes. Half of the five million council homes that existed 20 years ago have been sold off thanks to the Right to Buy scheme introduced by Margaret Thatcher’s Tory government and continued under Labour. In 1970 172,000 council homes were built for working class people in Britain. In 2001 only 487 council homes were built. The number of newly-built social houses for rent has fallen from 42,700 in 1994-1995 to around 21,000 in 2002-2003. This desperate shortage of affordable housing for the poorest people in Britain is forcing ever more people into temporary housing or homelessness.

In FRFI 177 we reported on the council housing crisis. The government continues to blackmail council tenants all over Britain to ‘choose’ to have their homes sold off to private companies, offering just three options: to sell their home to a housing association (RSL) or a private finance consortia or to set up an Arms-Length Management Organisation (ALMO).

Tenants have rejected the three government ‘options’ in one in four of the votes so far. Tenants have defeated 30 transfers. Yet Housing Minister Keith Hill insists there is no fourth way for council tenants to bring their homes up to the decent homes standard by 2010. Yet at the 2004 Labour conference, members voted overwhelmingly against the government by backing the so-called ‘fourth option’ – direct investment in council housing. Campaigners continue to fight to keep council housing under public control and for the investment needed to improve council homes.

Campaigners have exposed ALMOs as the first stage to privatisation of council homes. This was confirmed in a new paper from the Deputy Prime Minister’s Office, which proposes giving ALMOs complete ownership of council homes perhaps as early as 2006. (The Guardian, 3 September 2004) A new pamphlet for the Fabian Society argues that the transfer of the remaining 2.8 million council homes should be made mandatory by the end of 2007, with tenants losing the right to veto housing transfers. The author of the pamphlet, Jeff Zitron, who runs a housing consultancy specialising in housing transfers, donated £10,000 to Labour in 2002.

Registered Social Landlords (RSLs) are not-for-profit organisations, but they are private sector landlords in legal terms. When homes are transferred, tenants become less secure assured tenants. RSL rents are on average 17% higher than council rents. According to a report by the Citizens Advice Bureau published in 2003, possession orders given to social landlords by local courts are increasing by 12% every year.

Labour plans to sell off even more social housing. Alan Milburn, Labour’s election supremo, proposed plans to extend the Right to Buy to all Housing Association tenants as part of Labour’s election manifesto. Other members of the government have been more cautious, fearing opposition from within the Labour Party and trade unions before the election. The result is the ‘Social Home Buy Scheme’, which opens up housing association properties to partial purchase by residents. Over time residents can buy outright. This plan is, like ALMOs, privatisation by stealth.

The official number of homeless households has topped 100,000 for the first time; an increase of 7% over last year and an increase of 123% since the Labour took office in 1997 – representing over half a million people without a proper home. This ignores unregistered homeless people and those living in sub-standard or overcrowded homes in the UK. The rate of homelessness among the UK’s black and ethnic minority population is disproportionately high.

In December 2004, the government announced cuts to the Supporting People budget, which is where the majority of funding of projects for 1.2 million vulnerable people comes from, including the homeless, victims of domestic abuse, people with mental health problems and the elderly. Budgets for all 150 councils administering the £17 billion scheme were cut in December 2004, in most cases by 5%. As more people become homeless, so support for them is being slashed.
Barnaby Mitchel

FRFI 183 February / March 2005


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