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March 2000

Community empowerment in social housing.

All over the country, thousands of tenants are voting to transfer their homes
away from the control of their local council: usually to housing associations. 
Within a few years, there will be virtually no public housing left in the country
Who can blame the tenants for voting this way given the benefits it  brings 
them?  Repairs and improvements promised by councils for years can be  
right away.  Theoretical issues like governance and  democratic control seem
less important if you are living in a draughty, damp and badly heated flat on a
run-down sink estate.  But having your say in how your estate is important.
So how does one promote tenant democracy whilst retaining the financial
benefits of stock transfer?  The Community Gateway Model of management
recently proposed by the mutuality think tank Mutuo points the way.  Here, 
tenant involvement is tailored both to the tenants' own wishes and their
capacity to participate.
So does Stock Transfer present an opportunity for the development of Housing Co-ops?  This article will examine whether the Model proposed by Mutuo is the way to do it.  In last year’s Green Paper ‘Quality and Choice; A decent home for all’, the government said that it would like to see at least 200,000 homes transferred out of the public sector every year.  So far, most of the Large Scale Voluntary Transfers have taken place with small or medium sized councils.  To date, none of the big local authorities have transferred their entire stock but ballots on these are imminent.  Glasgow is the biggest.  It proposes to transfer its entire housing stock of 90.000 units to the mutual sector.  The ballot here has been delayed several times mainly because of sensitivities in the run up to the recent General Election with the SNP and various far left campaigners running scare stories about so-called ‘privatisation’.  Birmingham is the next biggest.  Here the ballot has also been delayed partly over the question of the actual valuation of the stock being transferred.  So far, no London Borough has transferred the its entire stock but several have transferred    ndividual estates. Despite the strenuous efforts by campaigning groups like ‘Defend Council Housing’ and ad hoc tenants groups like ‘Tenants Concerned about Transfer’, the transfers continue unabated.  It’s true that a few ballots have rejected transfer but overall it is likely that the government’s target will be easily achieved.

The Green Paper also recommended that councils should set up Arms-Length Housing Com- -panies.  Until recently, these were not popular because of the tight Best Value compliance requirements and the restrictions on funding.  These have been relaxed recently, so many local authorities are having a second look at this type of arrangement.  The effect of this may be to slow down Large Scale Voluntary Transfers but to the increase overall the number of properties that are no longer directly run by the councils.  One mustn’t forget that all the transfers have to be voluntary.  The tenants have to agree first.  So why should they?  If they stay with the local council, their repairs and improvements are likely to take years.  Housing associations can borrow money on the open market.  So refurbishments can be done quickly.  

Not so with cash- strapped local authorities.   They are kept on a tight rein by the Treasury because its obsession with the PSBR.  But what do the tenants lose when they transfer?  Mainly any form of democratic redress.  Though councils will remain responsible for the housing strategy in their areas, the day-to-day running of the properties is taken out of their hands.  So, there is not much point in going to see your  councillor if you have a problem.  Tenants also lose the Right to Manage i.e. the right to take over the management of their own estates.  Though rarely exercised, it is a very useful back-stop if things go wrong.  



Ideally, the best people to run social housing estates are the people who live on them.  They know the problems and what needs to be done.  But co-operatively run housing cannot be achieved overnight.  Not everyone wishes to take on the responsibility of running their own estate.  Not everyone is capable of doing so even if they want to.  Training and capacity-building are essential.  That takes time; many years.  Where well established tenant management organisations or tenants management co-operatives exist, the transfer from local government control to tenant co-operative ownership can be done without too much difficulty.  If these are not present, then it would be unrealistic to propose that estates could be transferred to co-operatives overnight.  It would be a recipe for disaster.T

he Mutuo proposal is that a special kind of housing association is set up which would be committed to carry out a community empowerment strategy.  This would be written into its constitution.  At a suitable time after the initial transfer, the association would start to handover power to the tenants.  Mutuo has called this arrangement the Community Gateway Model.  It recognizes that the Model would have to be flexible because it would need to take account of the changes that take place inside the association from time to time.  In voluntary organizations, there are often personnel changes.  People come and go, some retire and others lose interest.  That is why the Model has an in-built ‘stair-casing’ arrangement whereby the degree of devolution can be varied depending on the prevailing circumstances at any given time.  

Housing Green Paper

But the Mutuo model, as currently proposed, does not take sufficient account of the long term public interest in the properties being transferred.  The estates were built with public money.  The land on which they stand was also paid for by the taxpayer.  For this reason, it would be better if the local authorities retained the freehold of any land transferred to Community Gateway associations.  By using covenants the Council could restrict their use to social housing.  However the Right to Buy legislation does means that gentrification could still take place.  That applies equally to council housing.  The first pilot projects of the Community Gateway Model are likely to be in Wales . 
The new Model is strongly supported by the National Assembly for Wales .  To quote from the Assembly’s policy document ‘Better Homes for People in Wales- a National Housing Strategy for Wales ’:   This model promoted by the Co-operative movement, develops the concept of mutuality.  It offers a real opportunity to create a structure for Wales that reflects the many communities that comprise every local authority area.’
Let’s hope that these pilot schemes will be a success.  Whilst the housing needs in Wales are very different from those in other parts of the United Kingdom , there are similarities too.  For that reason, I am sure that the Community Gateway Model for housing management deserves the support of all people who are committed to the twin causes of economic democracy and social justice

Transferring Ownership;- Community empowerment in social housing

Nic Bliss, Cliff Mills and others

       77 Weston Street London SE1 3SD  (£5)


This article was first published in the Chartist March 2000

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