After some delay the Hammersmith and Fulham Residents Commission launched their proposals last night – with much approving nodding from the Labour councillors present – to abolish council housing in the borough.
Their plan is for a stock transfer to a “community gateway” (a new housing association). It would be irreversible. Originally that was the whole point. Labour’s idea was to permanently block estate redevelopment – regardless of the outcome of future council elections. Not a very democratic approach, but they were quite brazen about that being their motive.
When Labour previously ran the Council they had an earlier wheeze of setting up an ALMO – an “arms length management organisation” to run council housing. It was a failure. While there were tenant and leasehold reps on the board, along with some councillor and council appointees, we were ignored. Few evenings in my life can have been spent less productively. Decisions would be made but nothing would change. Levers would be pulled but they turned out to be disconnected to the machinery. Accountability was removed from councillors – but not really given to anyone else. Regime change followed a failed Audit Commission inspection and eventually the council housing came back in house.
However at least with the ALMO it was possible for the process to be reversed. This was because the management was handed over but the ownership remained with the Council. A “community gateway” would not just be for Christmas but for life.
To use an analogy about our currency joining the ALMO was equivalent to joining the ERM, joining the Community Gateway would be like abolishing the pound and joining the Euro. As William Hague vividly put it – “a burning building with no exits.”
What if the Community Gateway failed to deliver on all the promises? What if, for instance, the Community Gateway merged with a bigger housing association after some years? All the talk about resident power would prove to be just froth.
There are concerns about the process for making the initial decision. There would be a ballot to ratify any transfer – but there is no guarantee that the leaseholders would get a vote.
A former Labour MP was paid to run the Commission. That was hardly reassuring as regards objectivity and impartiality.
Furthermore the scrutiny process at last night’s meeting was a farce. Officially the event was a meeting of the Economic Regeneration, Housing and the Arts Policy and Accountability Committee. Yet the report had no been circulated before hand. It will go to the Council’s Cabinet without scrutiny.
Given the context that is unbelievable. It Commission’s report cost the Council a staggering £1.5 million.
Scrutiny is also a considerable Council expense. The “Governance and Scrutiny” department employs 10.6 full time equivalents. It has an annual budget of £486,100. That a hefty sum from the Council Taxpayer’s pockets each year and shows what nonsense it is when the Council whines about being strapped for cash.
On top of this Labour councillors who chair the committees are paid extra councillor allowances.
The Children and Education Policy and Accountability Committee is chaired by Cllr Caroline Needham.
The Community Safety, Environment and Residents Services Policy and Accountability Committee is chaired by Cllr Larry Culhane.
The Economic Regeneration, Housing and the Arts Policy and Accountability Committee (the one that nominally met last night) is chaired by Cllr Alan De’ath.
The Finance & Delivery Policy & Accountability Committee is chaired by Cllr PJ Murphy.
The Health, Adult Social Care and Social Inclusion Policy and Accountability Committee is chaired by Cllr Rory Vaughan.
Each committee meets half a dozen times a year for an hour or two. For agreeing to chair these meetings each of the councillors gets an extra £5,000 a year. So £833.33p a meeting. A staggering large sum for so little work.
To be fair I suspect at least some of them have the odd pang of conscience. They probably set out on the foray into local democracy with a different ideal of public service. I wonder if they sometimes have the decency to wince at their payslips?
Still that pushes the scrutiny bill to over half a million a year.
It’s actually worse than that as the money (our money) for those “special responsibilty” allowances is handed out by the council leader. So it is a system of patronage. Thus any of above named scrutiny supremos who actually asked any awkward questions and did any real scrutiny would face losing £5,000 a year – as one of their less troublesome colleagues was found to take on their onerous duties instead. Thus it is not just poor value for money. It is negative value. It is spending which diminishes the amount of scrutiny that would otherwise occur.
Whatever your view of stock transfer, the abolition of council housing in the borough would be the most momentous decision the Council has taken this century. The complete impossibility of giving it any serious examination last night was a most spectacular abdication of proper process – even in the context described above of the Council’s dysfunctional rotten scrutiny process.
Now the good news. Support for estate redevelopment, as a means to provide new homes and better homes on the estate concerned – and also revenue to improve social housing elsewhere in the borough – has become bipartisan.
The Commission’s proposal is that 500 new homes would be guaranteed by the Community Gateway. There would be existing homes demolished to allow the space for this net increase. It would be a legal requirement for the new entity and a financial necessity. It would be in terms agreed to secure a debt write off from central government. It would be controversial. There would be compulsory purchase. Whatever the deal on offer not everyone would want their existing homes bulldozed. Yet under the Labour plan, bulldozed they would be.
Now I think that if estate redevelopment involved an end to desolate concrete blocks and the replacement with beautiful housing where the traditional street patterns were restored then most residents could be persuaded it was worth the disruption and uncertainty. The swapping of new tower blocks or slab blocks for old is not good enough. New housing doesn’t need to be ugly. High density need not mean high rise.
But what a brazen Labour u-turn. For years their canvassers have been scaremongering about estate redevelopment – with false claims that tenants would be out on the street or rehoused in Barking and Dagenham. Now they say it is fine to knock down the homes provided it is not the wicked Tories doing it. The demolition would be carried with Community Gateway wrecking balls as the Labour councillors looked on with self righteousness undimmed.
There is no magic money tree – whether the housing stock remains council owned or is handed over to a housing association. Estates are going to be redeveloped. The Conservatives are open and consistent about it. Labour are muddled and duplicitous. But it now seems to be accepted that it will happen.
The issue is how it will happen. It is a matter of democratic accountability. My inbox provides reminders on a daily basis that Hammersmith and Fulham Council is a bad landlord. It also provides plenty of complaints about the similar deficiencies of housing associations. The difference is that as a councillor I can do so rather more about the former than the latter.
Stock transfer would not solve any of the problems that would have to be faced. But it would mean is that those dealing with the problems would have synthetic rather than genuine accountability to residents.