Attracting virtually no comment at the time it was passed, an obscure clause in Labour’s 2008 Housing and Regeneration Act could offer council tenants a unique but controversial way of owning and running their own homes.
Section 34A, as it is known, requires a local authority to co-operate with a formal notice from a tenant group to transfer ownership of council homes and estates to them. The government has decided to press forward with making regulations under the section and has branded it the right to transfer. A draft is expected in February.
As a policy, S34A is a direct descendant of the Tenants Choice legislation that was introduced by the Conservatives in 1988. The political belief at the time was that tenants would rise up to take control of their housing from Labour councils who ran their housing badly. In practice, and famously, it was used by Walterton & Elgin Community Homes (WECH) to take over their estates when Westminster Council, led by Shirley Porter, tried to sell them to developers. As it didn’t lead to the hoped-for tenants’ revolt in Labour areas, and caused embarrassment in Westminster, it was repealed in the mid 1990s.
WECH is still going strong, a leading example of tenant control working in practice. Based on its experiences, the organisation has become a strong advocate of the principle that genuine empowerment through community ownership and control can lead to measureable improvements in happiness and wellbeing.
The right to transfer is seen by the ConDems as furthering both Localism and the Big Society. So we have Labour legislation and ConDem implementation, does this mean there is a consensus that the right to transfer is a good thing? The left has often been divided on the issues of tenant control and, in particular, tenant ownership. The co-operative and mutual traditions run deep, but there has often been hostility to moving ownership out of the public sector and away from traditional democratic control. Is transfer from a council to collective tenant ownership and control ‘privatisation’ or a different form of socialised ownership? I go for the latter as long as the model does not allow for private gain (as some earlier co-ownership models did) and the homes are properly used to meet housing need.
There are of course dangers to negotiate. If tenants wish to transfer part of a local authority’s stock to their ownership, coming out of the housing revenue account is hugely complex and has risks for both sides. Other major issues to deal with include the viability of the new tenant organisation and the long-term relationship with the parent authority over issues like allocations and future development.
The right to transfer will also cause bigger political divisions in the Conservative Party. In Hammersmith and Fulham, normally the incubator of Tory housing policy, tenants on estates threatened by demolition as part of the huge Earls Court redevelopment have already served notice that they want to take over their estates, potentially scuppering the council’s plans to reduce the amount of social housing in the borough. Will the government be willing to effectively overrule the Prime Minister’s favourite council to pursue its policy?
Given the need for the Labour Party to develop a new stance on housing, my own view is that Ed Miliband and the housing front bench should support tenants interested in using this new power.
PS – In legislative technicalities, S296 of the Housing & Regeneration Act 2008 introduced a new Section 34A to the 1985 Housing Act.