Housing transfer ballot says emphatically that council should retain property ownership

January 4th

By Joshua Layton Swindon Advertiser

Swindon council tenants have delivered a crushing defeat to plans for a transfer of their homes to a private housing association. Residents used a ballot to register overwhelming opposition to the proposals, with 72.3 percent voting against, and just 27.7% in favour.

A healthy turnout of 66% compared well with votes in other similar sized authorities.

The Council had said that without the transfer going ahead it would not have been able to go ahead with a £70 million plan to modernise its 10,500 properties in the borough under a new government funding regime.

But residents feared their homes were being sold off too cheaply and they would not have received the same service from the new organisation, even though it would be run on a not-for-profit basis.

Martin Wicks, who has lived in a council property in Welcombe Avenue, Park North, for 27 years, organised a ‘no’ campaign through the Swindon Tenants Campaign Group.

He said:

The pleasing thing about it is that it’s such a decisive majority against the transfer. It may come as a surprise to some people but nobody can argue with the result. Clearly the tenants decided it was in their best interests to remain as council tenants.

One of the thing s they picked up was the hard sell the council was making in favour of the transfer and they asked themselves why the council was so keen on it.

The council said it wasn’t selling the transfer but, it was merely presenting it to tenants, yet we had reports from all over the town of people who felt harassed after the council had staff knocking on doors and ringing up. That’s one of the reasons why they voted so decisively to reject transfer.”

Mr Wicks’ partner Eileen George added:

It’s not often that the little people get their voices heard. The council threw an overwhelming amount of resources and staff at persuading people to say ‘yes’. It was an absolute disgrace.

We ran our campaign on a shoestring and put together two leaflets and a poster with people putting their hands into their pockets to pay for the printing.

We relied on volunteers to get the message across and in the end the tenants withstood an amazing volume of high pressure salesmanship.

There are now question marks over how much this cost.”

The result of the ballot, which closed on December 30th after a four month consultation, was revealed yesterday morning.

The Council will now have to borrow £140 million under a new self-financing system which comes into effect across all local authorities nationally on April 1st.

The money will be paid to the government as its share of the national housing debt.

Councillor Jim Grant, Labour group leader, welcomed the clear outcome, but questioned the cost of the vote.

He said:

I think you would be hard pressed to find a housing ballot anywhere in the country with such an overwhelming majority of tenants voting ‘no’ to transfer.

Before the Tories decided to ballot tenants on a stock transfer, I warned them that Labour couldn’t support a housing ballot until an early test of tenant opinion was conducted, because of the £600,000 plus cost of conducting the ballot.

They ignored my calls and have now wasted at least £600,000 of taxpayers’ money on a costly ballot that has turned out to be unnecessary.”

Coun Grant accused the council administration of being “hell bent” on ensuring a ‘yes’ vote without negotiating a reduction in the housing self-financing debt.

He said: “Birmingham City Council did not ballot its tenants and managed to negotiate away almost a quarter of the amount it will have to repay the government under the self-financing scheme.”

Coun Russell Holland, cabinet member in charge of housing, welcomed the strong turnout yesterday. “Right from the start the council’s view was that there were benefits to transfer, but that it was up to tenants to decide how to vote.

We worked hard to make sure that everyone got clear factual information about the reasons for the proposal and what it meant for them. I’m delighted that so many people took the chance to have their say and we will respect their decision.”

Coun Holland also confirmed that a £70 million improvement scheme for the council homes would not now go ahead. Under the new scheme rents will be set by central government, with the money received going towards the council’s debt, rather than on carrying out improvements.

Responding to Labour attacks over the costs of the ballot, Coun Holland said: My message to tenants has always been that it your home, your future, your choice.

Labour voted against tenants having a choice at all and have never explained what their housing policy is or how it can be paid for. Strangely, the Swindon Labour Party abandoned the national Labour Party policy of letting tenants have a vote and have instead gone back to the Labour of the 1980s where it thinks the state should control every aspect of life.

As usual Jim Grant has got his figures wrong. The ballot costs were £250,000 and Swindon Council had its debt reduced.

I think it is very sad that Jim Grant thinks letting tenants have a vote is a waste of money. Jim Grant needs to understand that tenants have their own minds and are not owned by the Labour Party.”