Silent revolution gathers pace in Tory heartlands: Ballots approve transfers of 140,000 properties in 31 local authorities. Colin Brown reports (CORRECTED)

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The Independent Online
CORRECTION (PUBLISHED 2 AUGUST 1994) APPENDED TO THIS ARTICLE

IN A silent revolution in public housing, 31 local authorities have already transferred more than 140,000 council homes into private ownership through housing associations.

All the councils were Conservative-controlled and in the Home Counties, the West Country and northern England.

Some councils in the leafy outer London boroughs have turned their housing into a gold mine. Bromley in south London raised pounds 117m by the transfer of 12,393 homes - all its housing stock - to Broomleigh housing association, and wiped out its debt with the proceeds. Hertsmere was the first in the country to act, with two associations taking more than 6,000 properties.

The Labour-controlled authorities were strongly opposed to the idea, which undermined one of their key roles as councils. It meant giving up an important power base, with direct control over housing for thousands of tenants and their families.

But Labour council leaders saw the transfers as a lifeline for public housing. 'It was seen as one way of preventing the stock being whittled away by the right- to-buy policy. The transfers would be managed, rather than having the best cherry-picked,' one official said.

Ministers recognise that transferring poor housing in the inner cities and urban areas of Britain will be more difficult. The purpose of the joint study by five metropolitan councils, including Sheffield and Manchester which have problem tower blocks, is to find ways of doing it.

The transfers give housing associations a steady income from rents, and a capital asset in the flats or houses, which, after the backlog of repairs is carried out, can rise in value.

Tenants benefit because housing associations can guarantee the rent will not rise more than 1 to 2 per cent for a period, compared to 5 per cent by the council; they can offer more certainty, with councils unable to plan more than a couple of years ahead, as a result of uncertainties about grants. All 31 transfers took place after ballots, requiring a 51 per cent majority.

The councils gain because many with good property can secure a windfall to enable them to build more council houses. However, councils selling poor property are unlikely to gain any windfall from the sale, with the funds raised being offset against the backlog of repairs.

Sir George Young, the former housing minister, who helped to pioneer the scheme, said he believed that more types of landlord would be needed.

Ten studies (two in each of the five authorities) are being carried out. The official said: 'The study is getting down to real numbers. In some urban estates, the value may be very low or even nil. In those estates, it will still be better to transfer rather than have the public sector face unlimited future liabilities. The difficulties are in the detail.'

The 31 successful large-scale voluntary transfers were in: Chiltern, 4,650 properties; Sevenoaks, 6,526; Newbury, 7,053; Swale, 7,352; Broadland, 3,721; N Beds, 7,472; Medina, 2,825; Rochester, 8,029; S Wight, 2,119; Mid Sussex, 4,426; E Dorset, 2,245; Tonbridge and Malling, 6,382; Ryedale, 3,353; S Bucks, 3,319; Christchurch, 1,621; Suffolk Coastal, 5,272; Tunbridge Wells, 5,519; Bromley, 12,393; Surrey Heath, 2,885; Breckland, 6,781; E Cambs, 4,266; Hambleton, 4,268; W Dorset, 5,279; Havant, 3,561; Epsom and Ewell, 1,740; Hart, 2,408; S Shrops, 1,500; Leominster, 1,832; S Ribble, 3,445; Hertsmere, 4,370 and 1,700; Penwith, 3,366. Total 141,678.

CORRECTION

In an article yesterday on the transfer of council housing to private ownership, it was incorrectly stated that all 31 councils which have transferred stock were Conservative controlled. East Cambridgeshire, one of the councils listed, is independent of any party control.

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