Belfast Telegraph

Privatisation is a plague on all our social housing

By Eamonn McCann

Derry being unique, no one will be surprised we once had our own way of allocating houses.

Every year, the gerrymandered unionist majority on the corporation devolved its housing role to a committee of four unionists and two nationalists. The committee then delegated its powers to the mayor.

The property qualification in local government elections meant that giving a family a house was to give them a vote. And the unionists in Derry had to be circumspect about which citizens should be given votes.

The only way to get a house was to persuade the mayor to pick your name from his bowler hat. Thus the scene in the Guildhall corridor of a woman with a child by the hand pleading, "Please Mr Anderson, we have been on the list for 15 years."

Anyone who doesn't understand how scenarios of that sort generated the raging sense of humiliation that was to erupt in the civil rights movement doesn't begin to understand this place.

Fundamental change in the governance of what we now call "social housing" was a necessary element in the reform programme of the late 1960s and early-1970s.

The Unionist Party was distraught at the prospect. Don Anderson reminded us in the Telegraph last Friday of Home Secretary James Callaghan's account of a meeting with the Stormont Cabinet in August 1969: "They regarded ... my proposal that there should be a single authority for the allocation and building of houses ... with near-horror on political and administrative grounds for, of course, it went to the heart of political patronage."

Callaghan pressed on. Hence the Housing Executive. The fact that the formation of the Housing Executive marked a significant plot-point in the Northern Ireland narrative doesn't mean that it should now be regarded as inviolable.

If Social Development Minister Nelson McCausland could show that a different arrangement would be better all round, the Housing Executive could reasonably be consigned to historical memory. But his responses to Assembly questions on Monday suggest that he has no such rationale to offer.

The proposal is for the transfer of management and maintenance of 90,000 homes and future construction of "social housing" from the Housing Executive to a number of new housing associations.

Asked by Mark H Durkan whether Housing Executive jobs would be safe, the minister replied, "Whenever there is change, in any scenario, people have concerns about how it will ultimately develop. Let me stress that this is not about cutting jobs, or saving money."

He described this as a "categorical assurance" which he urged MLAs to "carry ... out to the wider community". In fact, it is not an assurance at all.

Jim Allister asked how transfer to housing associations "would ... likely impact on rent levels, given that rents in that sector tend to be higher than [Housing] Executive levels?"

The response was that, "It is expected that future rent levels will be better aligned to planned investment and funding requirements." Which isn't an answer.

Steven Agnew wanted to know whether tenants' representatives would have the same representation under the new dispensation as under the Housing Executive.

He was told that, "Certainly, as we go about the [transfer] process, engagement and consultation with tenants will be important." Again, not an answer.

Mr McCausland insisted that transferring public sector housing to housing associations "has been good practice right across the UK" (He meant Britain.) In fact, what British experience tells us is that the transfers amount to privatisation.

Housing associations may be - initially, at least - not-for-profit organisations.

But the official designation masks the fact that, in law and in practice, they operate as private sector entities, borrowing directly from the banks, using housing stock as collateral, engaging in land speculation, merging, or negotiating take-overs, with other housing associations.

Fewer than a third of housing associations set up in Britain since the 1980s remain as individual entities.

The significance of this lies in the fact that, when one housing association takes over another, the new housing association is not legally bound by agreements and promises previously made to tenants.

Housing associations can charge rents at market prices, whereas public sector tenants have a legal right to a "reasonable" rent - Jim Allister's point.

No convincing case has been made for the abolition of the Housing Executive. No credible argument has been advanced for its replacement by housing associations. The proposals are based on ideology.

Mr McCausland did strike one intriguing note when he told Dolores Kelly of the SDLP that, "When I sent the proposal around the [Stormont] Executive, the general thrust of the paper received very little criticism from her party colleague [Alex Attwood] ... There were some issues here and there, but the core direction of travel is one that everyone has basically signed up to."



From Belfast Telegraph