I attended a meeting of Swindon Tenants Voice on Saturday at which Bernie Brannan (Head of Housing) gave an update on the ‘options appraisal’ process. The Council, you will recall, has voted in principle to ballot tenants on a transfer of our Housing stock to a Housing Association, but subject to clarification from the government on the ‘terms of transfer’ on offer. In particular they wanted to know whether or not the debt write-off, which has been used as an incentive to ‘persuade’ tenants to vote for transfer, was still available.

Bernie reported that he and Mike Ash (from the Housing Department) had met with the Communities and Local Government department to seek this clarification. The Minister is looking at the responses to the consultation on their proposals for reform of Housing Finance. He is expected to write to the 202 Councils still with Council housing to let them know the amended proposals which the government is putting forward. At the same time he is considering the position of those authorities where tenants have already voted for transfer in a ballot.

Swindon asked the CLG whether there was any chance that they could be “added to the bag” of authorities where a ballot had taken place (were they keen or what?). The answer was a firm NO. It also appears that there will be no financial incentives for transfer (in line with the statement of the Minister and the government’s consultation document).

Bernie said that until the Minister writes to the local authorities there was nothing to be done. The whole process is on hold. There was no justification, he said, in spending money starting the balloting process, until the government’s proposals were stated in February or March.

If there are no financial incentives for transfer then it is difficult to see how the Swindon Tories could justify balloting tenants. With the financial incentives for transfer available, the Tories could put forward a plausible sounding argument that they would be able to “offer a better service” under a Housing Association. They present themselves as pragmatists who are simply proposing to do what’s best for the interests of the tenants.

However, without financial incentives for transfer then they could not offer that argument. If they were to ballot under conditions when the resources available to the Council were the same regardless of whether or not they transferred the stock or maintained ownership, then they would be seen to be doing so for ideological reasons (showing they wanted to get rid of our Council housing) and would risk losing £1 million of Council tax payers money if tenants voted against. They would be stupid to ballot under these circumstances. If they did it would make winning a ballot easier for us.

So it looks as if, at the moment we will not face a ballot, at least under the current government. What happens if the Tories are elected is another matter, though with them talking about the need to cut, cut, cut in the public sector it is difficult to see how they could reinstate financial incentives for transfer. We shall see.

In the meantime, we are continuing to deliver the leaflet/poster to tenants, just in case. In any event we are building up our contacts on the various estates from the leaflet delivery, which means we will be in a better position to campaign in the future, should we face a further threat to our housing. We will certainly have a battle on our hands for funding which is sufficient for our needs.

Martin Wicks

November 22nd 2009