Housing update

In the end, the Council decision went like this:

The Tories wanted to defer a ballot, but keep the process going (and this would mean starting the process of working out the costs again and hoping that they were right this time).

Labour wanted to stop the process, and not simply keep trying, as it is clear that tenants will not vote in favour. The Lib Dems supported this, and so the policy went through 18-16.

Afterwards, Labour leader Brenda Smith asked for a cross-party group which could really look at the Housing Department and look for areas where it could make savings without affecting service levels or the cost to the tenant. The Tories refused. I suspect that the Lib Dems would have agreed, especially as this mirrors comments made by Marcella Head.

Ignorant and Misinformed?

Duncan Crow (who you know I love dearly) today responded to a report in the local press that he had called tenants ‘ignorant and misinformed’. Apparently that was the last thing in his mind.

The question that immediately came to mind was whether anyone else is ‘ignorant and misinformed’ about the Housing issue.

For example, the Audit Commission, the TPAS (tenant’s panel) and now the Government Office of the South East have refused to endorse the transfer documentation. Why? Well, it seems that when they said in June that the finances were critical and we needed to get shot of council houses, they overstated the facts a little. The costs have gone up to £60M and now back down to £25M. The ‘deficit’ of £11M that they claimed would force lots of service cuts and increased charges/rents would then turn into a cushion of about £24M.

Back in June, the Tories chose to restart the process and try to shoe-horn it into 9 months with a new set of figures. In November they were warned that this might fail but plowed on regardless. The Lib Dems swallowed the propaganda and concentrated on the finer detail, and so the process rolled on, in the face of opposition from tenants and the Labour group.

A DVD costing £30,000 was sent out, which only 24% of tenants watched and was rendered innacurate one week before it was posted by the U-Turn on increased charges for ‘Lifeline’. More time and money will have to be spent on tidying up the mess and starting yet again and the Tories can only bleat about how it’s not their fault and answer direct questions with tedious waffle or ‘we will get back to you’ (which was the answer they gave to the same question in November).

‘Ignorant and Misinformed’? Duncan is right, it isn’t the tenants is it? Perhaps it’s the Tory Executive, including one Cllr Crow of Furnace Green.

Oh, and on another topic, Duncan Crow has been accused of being a’roundabout robber‘ and the Observer helpfully depicted him as he’d look in a stripey jersey and black mask. Tsk Tsk, naughty Observer.

Crawley Tories lose their Head

Fresh from Skuds, and supplemented by the Lib Dems, the story of how Marcella Head has defected from the Conservatives to the Liberal Democrats, meaning that Crawley Borough Council now has no majority group:

Conservatives: 18
Labour: 16
Liberal Democrats: 3

The Lib Dems now hold the balance of power and could, if they wanted, cause the Tories to lose their cabinet seats. What will actually happen? Perhaps the main area of change will be on the Housing Transfer, but it’s a bit late to do much about that now.

Housing revisited

Thinking of the last two posts reminds me that a while ago I wrote a letter to the Crawley News which (as well as pointing out that Fastway was down to the Tories at Chichester) said that I thought tenants should vote against transfer as it was in their best interests.

Shortly after that, Duncan Crow challenged me in a reply to say how. I didn’t bother, mainly because Martin Ballard does a far better job. But here’s a few ideas:

  • Tenants will pay higher rents.

    Ok, rents go up every year. But Housing Associations generally charge more than councils.
  • Tenants will pay higher rents

    What is more, the transfer documents do not include anything to stop a revaluation of the stock by the new HA after transfer (this was one thing that the Council referred back to the Executive on Nov 22). A revaluation would probably lead to steep rises for at least some tenants. Would we be hugely surprised it it turned out to be most tenants? Shouldn’t the stock have already had a recent valuation as part of the process going on now?

  • Tenants will pay higher rents (so will home-owners)

    If they are also renting a garage. In fact, most garages are rented by homeowners. When I asked a flippant question from the gallery on Nov 22 about whether garage rents would rise to meet the levels of house rents (as the valuation of the average house is about £2000 and the valuation of the average garage is about £2600 by the latest figures), I was surprised to get the answer from Bob Lanzer that the rentable value per square foot for a garage is indeed apparently more for a garage than for a house.

  • Tenants will pay higher rents

    The way the finances work is this. A new Housing Association will be set up to buy the housing stock etc from the Council. They will pay £30M, or thereabouts. As a brand new entity, it will not have the cash, so will have to borrow at market rates to do that. So, immediately, the HA will not only inherit the liabilities that landlords have (sitting tenants, repairs & maintenance), as well as assume new promises made for them by the Council to replace over 4000 kitchens and 5000 boilers in the next five years, but they will also have a massive debt. Who pays the interest on that? Tenants do, through their rents. If interest rates increase, we can expect that to be passed on.

  • Did I mention that tenants might have to pay higher rents?

    Of course, I could be spouting fearmongering propaganda (but at least I’m not spending £30K of public money on DVDs to do it). After all, the council sets up a rent agreement with the new HA doesn’t it?

    Yes. But the National Audit Office has found that 17% of transfer associations had ripped up those agreements. Scottish Borders was supposed to limit increases to inflation plus 1%. But instead rents went up by 5.5% (inflation plus 3%). Increases in tranfer associations in Scotland are higher than increases in pre-existing Housing Associations, which are higher than for councils.

    And of course these agreements have a time limit. What happens when the time runs out? Well, look to Hastings, where the transferred tenants of ‘Ten-Sixty-Six’ found that the average rent went up by 10% in the year that the agreement lapsed.

  • Not to labour the point, but rents might increase

    Housing Associations are beholden to their ‘owners’ and creditors, not to the tenants. If there are financial problems, there’s no hefty bank account to help out (Crawley Borough Council is £100M in credit), and so the choice is to increase rents, to sell assets, to cut services or to borrow (which will of course mean higher interest payments).

Councillor Crow, snide?

Skuds discusses the recent Council meeting on the Transfer of council homes, with the opening line:

“I think it was meant to be a snide remark from Councillor Crow at tonight’s extraordinary
council meeting about council housing transfer, but really its a compliment.”

The thought of Duncan Crow ever making a snide remark? Gosh! And he was going on about personalising politics earlier (trying to defend Cllr Quirk, who was being questioned from the public gallery about statements he’d made when trying to get elected). Of course, I’ve never heard Councillor Crow ever utter a word which might be construed as a personal attack, or ‘playing the man, not the ball’.

Well, not so much since I left the Council anyway…

Fame, fortune, beer!

I didn’t think that they’d go for it, but I got an article published on the Guardian’s Comment Is Free pages (CiF).

They changed the title, and added a reasonable standfirst (that’s the preamble paragraph, which was news to me until quite recently). They took out the links I put in to pages about Joseph Chamberlain and George Lansbury in local government, but they didn’t fix my appalling clash of perspective the the fifth paragraph (which maybe no-one else will notice but is flashing in red lights to my eyes). The picture is the least awful one I could get, using a mobile phone camera in my front room.

Anyway – it’s low level fame. After being in the background of a NorthWestminster piece, and being interviewed for local TV down here, my media empire inexorably spreads to the national stage.

Mwah ha ha hahhh!

Right, as I have the day off and my mate Darren is about, I’m off to the pub.

Posted in Uncategorized. Tags: , , . 4 Comments »

Tory town

It wasn’t entirely unexpected, but the way it happened and the actuality are quite disappointing. The Tories won seats in Southgate and Ifield, and got lucky with the drawing of lots for Broadfield North (just as they did in Furnace Green and Maidenbower not so long ago).

So, from a Labour majority of 1 we go to a Tory majority of 1. Bob Lanzer will be the new leader. Duncan Crow will be the deputy. I wonder who else will be running departments. Will Brenda Burgess be tasked with trying to convince tenants to opt for Stock Transfer? Who will have to handle the travellers (and what will they actually DO, now that they have ruled out the only sensible option)? What cuts will they make:

Voluntary sector – currently CBC donates about £600,000 to local voluntary groups. None of them is a loony left ‘muslim lesbian single mothers coffee morning’ group. They include the Citizens Advice Bureau, the Crawley CVS. Any cuts here will not exactly chime with the national Tory line about using voluntary and charitable bodies to do good in the community

Community Wardens – Labour was going to increase the number of them. If the Tories don’t or even more cut them, will that make our streets safer?

Raid the bank – Crawley is one of the few councils in the country which has kept itself debt free. In fact, there’s some money in the bank. The easy option would be to spend that money to keep council tax down. However, the interest on it is also used to keep council tax down. So if you dip into those reserves and don’t decrease revenue demands, all that will happen is that the savings will disappear. I’m all for using that capital to invest to make savings. But a Council Tax giveaway – while popular – will erode the financial position long term.

One thing I do know – we need a decent, united opposition on the Council. Part of the problem with the group appears to me that they didn’t notice that a majority of 16 had gone down to a majority of 1. You can afford posture politics sometimes, but not with a single vote at play.

Local Issues – 1. Hospital

Right. The Hospital. This is a big issue, and has been for years. Longer than people realise, I think – the original Hospital campaign was set up to get one built, which it eventually was in 1961. In the wrong place. That’s where the trouble really started.

West Green is not a bad place for the hospital, but it is far from perfect. Because the site was small, they built up. There were always rumours of expansion, either over Ifield Road or on the old Primary School site. However, in the mid-80’s the last time that more investment was put into the Health infrastructure, Crawley lost out. Big time.

Redhill got its old hospital replaced by East Surrey. That wouldn’t be a problem on its own, but the real kicker was the building of the Princess Royal to the south of Haywards Heath. At the time, it would have been better to replace Crawley with a major hospital to the south of the town, Pease Pottage would be (and still is perfect). However, political pressure from local notables (you’ll see who they are, they have parts of PRH named after them) led the Tory government to build in their areas.

Ten years later, the NHS under the Major Government was talking seriously about closing Crawley down altogether. That was the first time the recent Hospital Campaign got active. Luckily, the threat was withdrawn and the Trust merged with East Surrey. Unfortunately the new trust seems to have been dogged by management and financial problems ever since.

By 1999, when the changes that everyone is complaining about were first officially suggested, things had changed for Health. Whereas a General Hospital serving 100,000 to 250,000 people used to be suitable, providing enough opportunities for training doctors and consultants, nowadays the Royal Colleges are saying that 400,000 to 500,000 people is the right catchment area. This presents a problem for the area between Croydon and Brighton – three Hospitals cater for an area which is too small – if they want to be training hospitals (and they do – or they won’t attract any decent young practitioners). The PRH was moving towards Brighton, and Crawley and East Surrey shared the same Trust. And that Trust got to the state where it had to concentrate services on one site, or face losing training status for both.

Without a new build, it is (unfortunately) obvious that East Surrey has better scope for improvement than Crawley. And with East Surrey and PRH so close by, it is very hard to justify a brand new hospital at Pease Pottage. That doesn’t mean that it doesn’t make sense to do it, but it makes it very hard to convince the bureaucrats in the NHS that this is a good idea. They have far more weight than a local MP ever will (which is just as well, as the problems caused by politically motivated hospital building got us where we are now…). It was essentially the Trust, the regional NHS (and then the Strategic Health Authority) that made the decisions. The Health Secretaries and Ministers of the time were simply acting on advice.

When the local SHA looked at the Bagnall Review, they duplicated the financial work, so reducing the attractiveness of a new build. They then said any new build would have to be financed by the local Primary Care Trusts. The Surrey PCTs voted against any such help, as did the Horsham PCT, while Crawley PCT stood out alone, and so even though they wanted to help, they couldn’t act alone.

So, the Hospital Trust carried on with its plan. To make matters worse, they didn’t put it into practice very well. Something that had apparently been planned for 5 years (the transfer of A&E) happened as if it was planned on a Sunday evening on the back of a fag-packet. Lack of communication with the local Ambulance service meant that too many minor injuries were sent to East Surrey, resulting in queues. There have been a few changes at the top, but the problems of managment and finances just won’t go away.

So, who do people blame?

The Council. Well, this is completely silly. First of all the Borough Council has almost zero responsibility for Health, and so by law is actually not supposed to provide a hospital. What it has done, as long as I can remember, is to support the building of a new Hospital (to the point of offering a site), oppose cuts at Crawley, organise at least one of the demonstrations held in the town. Several councillors (including myself, the current Leader Chris Redmayne and two who lost their seats in 2000 – Chris Mullins and Bill Ward) were actually involved in the Hospital Campaign, until we were forced out because of the ideological intransigence of the SWP-inspired organisers. So, no. The Council is NOT to blame.

The local MP. Laura only really made one mistake. In 1999, instead of instantly and unequivacolly (sic) coming out against changes, which would have been universally popular, she decided to look at things in detail. In the end, she did come out against the changes, but by then the rumour-mill (fed by the trots again) had it that Laura was in favour. Despite the fact that she was instrumental in getting the Bagnall Review, people think that she did nothing. I know exactly what Laura has done, the lobbying on our behalf, and unfortunately it was never going to be enough. The decisions were effectively made already, and no MP could have made much difference. In fact, our previous MP, Nicholas Soames, did virtually nothing when the complete closure was mooted in the mid-90’s. Perhaps because he knew he was going to stand in Mid-Sussex by then.

The Government. There is some responsibility here, after all, they hold the purse strings for the NHS, they approve or deny changes like moving A&E or building a hospital. Certainly Alan Milburn did nothing to assist, apparently ignoring letters from locals (well, not replying anyway). However, nationally I think that they have done a lot for the NHS. At least they are building new hospitals, at least waiting lists are falling, at least Cancer survival rates are improving. While they didn’t do what we wanted and give us a new hospital, they did put extra money in to improve Crawley and East Surrey.

I can understand why people blame the local Council or MP. It is easy. So easy to point at a politician because they are there to represent you. It is far harder to point the finger at a quango, a team of bureaucrats, a Royal College, or whoever.

Oh, and half the people that complain now were nowhere near the campaign when it really needed support, back in 1999-2001. To those that were, you will remember the work that was put in, and the disappointment we felt each time a decision went the wrong way. To those that weren’t – perhaps you are complaining so much to offset your own guilt?

By the way – Henry Smith didn’t get involved with the Campaign until he had already been selected as candidate for the 2001 election. While some Tories were around, or did give support (Richard Burrett and Robert Lanzer), his ‘intervertion’ stunk of opportunism. And if he had become our MP, he’d have had the same weight as Laura – virtually none – while annoying the established Tory MPs in Reigate and Redhill, who are happy that East Surrey was not downgraded in favour of Crawley.

(ooh, controversial, huh?).