Glasgow tenants vote to sell off council housing

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The Independent Online

Glasgow tenants paved the way yesterday for the biggest shake-up of public housing in Britain by voting to transfer the city's 83,000 council homes to a housing association.

In a bitterly fought ballot, 58 per cent of tenants agreed that the Glasgow Housing Association (GHA) should take control of the city council's entire stock.

The result was closer than expected, with 20,836 tenants, or 42 per cent, voting to remain in municipal hands, compared with the 29,126 who backed the transfer plan. Turn-out in the postal ballot was 64 per cent.

Leaders of Glasgow City Council and the Scottish Executive hailed the 8,290 majority as a mandate for change and the only way to upgrade some of Britain's worst slums.

Iain Gray, the Social Justice Minister, said: "The GHA, over the next 11 years, will transform crumbling damp houses into attractive modern homes and many new houses will be built to replace those that will bedemolished."

One quarter of Glasgow's council homes are estimated to be unfit to live in because they are so dilapidated and damp, while half of the housing stock is in need of substantial repairs.

The city council said it could not afford major refurbishments because of borrowing restrictions and a housing debt of £900m, which swallows up 40p in every pound of rent.

But the Treasury said it would write off the council's historic debt if tenants voted to be taken over by a not-for-profit, social landlord.

Under the transfer plan, the GHA will spend £1.8bn on repairs over 10 years and embark on the demolition of 11,000 properties. Existing tenants have been given an eight-year guarantee that rents will riseby no more than inflation plus 1 percentage point.

Ministers say the transfer will act as a catalyst for the social and economic regeneration of some of the most unhealthy and deprived areas of Europe.

Mr Gray said: "Tenants can now look forward to the good- quality, affordable housing so vital if we are to tackle, head-on, poverty, ill-health and disadvantage. In addition, we aim to create thousands of training and work opportunities in the construction industry as the GHA's investment programme gets under way."

Councillor Charlie Gordon, Glasgow's civic leader, said the "clear-cut" result would "accelerate the regeneration of Glasgow and bring in £1.5bn of much-needed investment".

Opponents of the scheme, including the Scottish National Party and the Scottish Socialists, said it would spell the end of council housing in Scotland and lead to big rises in rent.

After the result was announced, Mike Kirby, Scottish convener of the Unison public- sector union, warned that a sizeable minority had voted no.

"The arguments against stock transfer still stand and other councils have taken different attitudes towards the issue," he said. "This is not a one-size-fits-all solution. The Executive has to take into account the substantial opposition to this policy and change their dogmatic approach."

Councils in Dumfries and Galloway, the Scottish Borders and the Shetlands are also planning to transfer their housing stock to a social landlord.

In England, about one-third of England's 300 housing authorities have already switched their stock as part of a growing trend over the past 10 years. A vote on the ownership of council homes in Birmingham – the biggest municipal landlord in Britain, with Glasgow second – will be announced on Monday.

Professor Steve Wilcox, of the Centre for Housing Policy at the University of York, said Scottish ministers would be "mightily relieved" by the vote in Glasgow.

The transfer plan had been a linchpin of housing policy since devolution and if it had been rejected, they had no other way to find the huge investment needed. "There were no other political options on the table that would give the opportunity to carry out, not just a major modernisation programme, but a complete restructuring of the housing sector," Professor Wilcox said.

The Glasgow vote could be seen as one step towards the end of council housing in Scotland, but not the rest of the UK, he said. "We are moving to a situation where local authorities will be minority landlords. It will be housing associations, local housing companies and local community organisations that take things forward."