Friday, June 26, 2009

Housing Stock Transfer: what is our party line?

The short answer is: there isn't one (writes Frank Little). I believe that if Anthony Taylor, who challenged me on his blog last Thursday to state the Liberal Democrat position, examines Labour Party national policy, he will find that this is true of his own party, too. (That is not to say that there haven't been Labour party conference votes against it, back in pre-Blair/Brown days.)

The more finessed answer is that the Liberal Democrats recognise Large Scale Voluntary Transfer (LSVT) as just one component of a flexible housing policy. What we have always (from the time of the Thatcher Housing Bill which introduced LSVT) objected to are the outdated, skewed rules on local authority spending and ridiculous public borrowing regulations which load the dice against council investment in public housing.

Some Liberal Democrat housing authorities in England certainly have embraced LSVT, usually as a result of taking control from a Labour council which left its housing in a mess, from which only injection of commercial capital could redeem it.

We are certainly not in favour of well-run and financially stable housing departments being disbanded for ideological reasons. We resent the government bullying councils into holding ballots by fiscal measures or (in the case of Wales) by setting too-high quality standards.

The former leader, Derek Vaughan, and the council's senior officers made repeated attempts at a financial compromise which would have enabled Neath Port Talbot to retain and still improve its housing stock. WAG was intransigent. It is disingenuous to blame this on a Plaid housing minister in the coalition government. It is clearly the Labour government in Westminster which is pulling the strings.

The alternative to holding a ballot this year was a loss of at least one central grant. The least bad alternative on offer to retaining council stock was a cooperative mutual. That was the clear message from the council leader last October, and that was reflected in the Liberal Democrat councillors' vote then. Note that we only signed up to the ballot process, and to the alternatives to be presented to the tenants. We did not promise to campaign for one side or the other, and we certainly reserved the right to question details during the process.

I used the term "conscience" of Cllr Keith Davies' choice to support the "No" campaign. It would be more accurate to state that the difference between us is one of "judgment", in particular that of how much it would cost the council to raise properties to the Welsh Housing Quality Standard and what financial penalties would be imposed by the government if we didn't achieve a "Yes" vote. I believe there will be a large financial downside, Cllr Davies does not.

Note that neither of our public stances conflicts with the vote we cast in council last year. Since there is no official Liberal Democrat policy on LSVT, for or against, there was no need for Cllr Davies to notify the party of his campaigning for "No", yet he did so out of courtesy.

I am pleased to see that Cllr Taylor is an enthusiast for the cooperative mutual model of housing corporation. This, if I remember correctly, emerged at the grass-roots in Liverpool, probably before Cllr Taylor was born, as a response to the failed central planning of Liverpool Labour's housing department (and, of course, the private rented sector of the time). I don't know that the prime movers were Liberals, but they were certainly acting in the "bottom-up" manner of Liberal politics.

Cllr Taylor's enthusiasm is not shared by several of his Labour colleagues. They are viscerally opposed to losing control of council housing, as private conversations and some of their pointed questions at seminars show. The difference between us and them is that we can express our differences in public without fear of retribution from a party "Star Chamber".

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