Saturday 7th January 2012
By Josh Layton Swindon Advertiser
SWINDON Council has been criticised for failing to negotiate a bigger reduction in the debt it will have to pay to the Government under a new funding system for its housing stock.
The Swindon Tenants’ Campaign Group rallied support for a ‘no’ vote in a ballot over whether to transfer the local authority’s homes to a private housing association.
The result was a victory for the campaigners, but leaves the council having to borrow £140m to pay the Government when the new funding regime begins on April 1.
Birmingham City Council managed to negotiate away almost a quarter of the bill it was saddled with, which was slashed from £434m to £342m.
Campaigner Martin Wicks said: “We as a town have been lumbered with a debt of £145m, which has been cut to £140m. Yet if the group which runs the council had not been so keen to sell off our housing it should have been approaching the Government to say the debt level was still unsatisfactory, particularly as we have a lot of housing which is expensive to maintain.
“The council told us the Government said the debt level was not up for negotiation, which we didn’t believe.”
Birmingham secured its £92m cut by presenting a case to Government which included arguing that it had ploughed more money into its stock than other local authorities.
But Mr Wicks believes Swindon had also brought its own stock up to similar levels, as judged by the Decent Homes Standard for quality in social housing.
He said: “Birmingham went to the Government and pointed out what a good job they had done maintaining and improving their housing stock.
“They nearly reached 100 per cent for the Decent Homes Standard. When we read that we were amazed because Swindon reached the Decent Homes Standard in 2008.
“If Birmingham City Council can press the Government and get a big reduction in their debt level, then why can’t Swindon do the same?”
Coun Russell Holland, cabinet member in charge of housing, called the comparison a red herring, as tenants had been given the opportunity to avoid the debt altogether by voting for the transfer.
He said: “Our debt was reduced, from £145m to £140m, though if the tenants had voted to go ahead with the transfer, it would have been zero.
“I think the reason Birmingham’s debt was reduced was to do with their position on demolitions – there is no real comparison.”
Coun Holland said the council would nevertheless write to the Government to see if there was any further room for manoeuvre and change things.
“The council had already negotiated with the Government to allow the ballot to go ahead at all,” he added.
“If the transfer had gone ahead the Government would have lost out on £140m.”
So, Councillor Holland seems to be blaming the tenants for the “debt”? Says it all really. I hope, come the next round of local/council elections, people remember this whole, very expensive debacle. A gross waste of money that could have been better spent elsewhere. If councils across the land had said “No” to the government’s plans in the first place, then none of this would have come about (am I right in thinking this was implemented by the previous Labour government and carried on by the current one?). People were genuinely worried about a possible change of landlord and especially the move from secure tenancies to assured tenancies. People also saw through the blatent, devious attempts at bribery by SBC and voted accordingly. As for the £140M “debt”, the council should have been negotiating this to a much lower or even zero figure from day one. They chose not to or at least only paid lip service to it. If councillors cannot do their job and put the people of Swindon first and work FOR them then they should resign as they are not fit for purpose. They need to remember that the people of Swindon voted them into the positions they hold and can just as easily vote them out again.
You’re right Fiona, the ‘self-financing’ system was being introduced by the previous government. The Defend Council Housing campaign called for the debt, much of which was mythical, to be written off. In the current economic crisis this would have meant Councils having millions more and would have enabled them to start building Council houses again.
However, this Council was not interested in trying to negotiate down the debt which comes with the new system for the simple reason that they wanted to flog off their houses. If they had seriously considered that the tenants might vote against transfer then they should have been pressing their government months ago. But they thought they were going to win the ballot so they weren’t bothered.
When I was on the radio a few days ago Robert Buckland spoke about trying to get the debt reduced. I rang him up and suggested that, given the tight time scale for the final determination of the debt for each Council, he should chase up the Minister directly and see whether he could get a reduction of the debt and an increase in our borrowing level. He agreed. We’ll see whether he can gain anything. However, the question needs to be asked of the Tory group on the Council, why didn’t they try to get their MP’s to press the government to negotiate down the debt?
When I asked at a Council meeting whether the Council was going to press for a reduction in the debt (I’ll have to check the date of that meeting) Russell Holland said that the government said that the debt was “non-negotiable”, but, of course that has proved not to be true.