.comment-link {margin-left:.6em;}

Saturday, January 22, 2011

How suppressing information can impact on the democratic process

The issue of the stock transfer is a tricky one. On the one hand I can understand that a local Council and its tenants would prefer that their homes continue to be managed by elected Councillors and their officers, on the other hand the maths just do not add up.

If we are to raise the quality of Council homes to a modern standard as well as tackle the many issues of dampness, poor heating and draughts that lead to poor health and high fuel bills for tenants, then we need to invest significant sums of money. Although Councils do have the power to borrow money to do this, despite claims to the contrary, they often cannot raise enough because they do not have the income streams to fund the borrowing.

Government statistics show that just 4% of Local Authority Housing and 9% of Housing Association properties met the Welsh Housing Quality Standard target in 2008. The majority of the properties failed on issues "mostly related to the safety of occupants". These include being structurally unsafe, not having a "reasonable level of physical security", not having adequate fire alarms and smoke detectors or an economical heating system.

There is an urgent need to reform the way that Council housing is financed to try and address this problem. In 2009-10, £86 million was sent across the border to the Treasury from housing revenue accounts. If that money was retained by Welsh Councils then that could give them between £4 million and £11 million a year each to spend on improving their housing stock. Equally, if the UK Government offered Councils the same assistance to retain their housing stock as they do to transfer it to a housing association, by writing off debt then the housing standard could be reached much quicker right across Wales.

However, the most fundamental reform would be to look at the income Councils are able to secure from their housing stock. Decades of low rents have led to low levels of investment. In England the coalition have recognised this and are reforming the rents system so as to generate more cash to build new homes and repair the existing ones. Obviously, we need to keep social housing affordable but some progress can be made on this through incremental changes.

Without these reforms stock transfer becomes the only option for many Councils, simply because housing associations inherit the properties debt-free and without the burden of the housing subsidy system. My neighbouring authority of Neath Port Talbot certainly thought that when they set up and won a ballot of all their tenants. They are now in the process of carrying out the transfer to a housing association. However, those opposed to the transfer process cried foul and their complaints have been upheld.

Members of the local Defend Council Housing campaign requested the addresses, but not the names of council tenants so they could send them information ahead of the historic ballot on the future of council homes. But the request was refused by the council on the grounds that, to release addresses for its tenants would breach data protection and human rights.

The South Wales Evening Post reports that a complaint made to the Information Commissioner's Office has been upheld. They say "that the public authority did not deal with the request for information in accordance with the Act".

Whether the failure to release this information has had a bearing on the result is a matter for conjecture. However, it is my view that they should have made the addresses available to Defend Council Housing so that a proper debate could have been had. It is one thing to carry out a stock transfer process to upgrade Council homes, it is quite another to undermine that process by ensuring that tenants do not hear all sides of the argument.
Comments: Post a Comment

<< Home

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?