Sunday, 22 September 2013

At Home With Eileen Short

Fighting for the fourth estate of housing

Back in 2010, the national Chair of Defend Council Housing (DCH) talked to Mark Cantrell about the organisation’s struggle to protect tenants’ rights and why she believes council housing is worth fighting for

Defend Council Housing (DCH) has earned itself the NHF’s irate thunder on many occasions for its insistence that stock transfer is but a euphemism for privatisation, yet it has never shied away from a confrontation nor turned coy in its fighting talk.

“We will fight against any attacks on secure tenancies – not just DCH but the whole tenant movement,” DCH Chair Eileen Short said. “David Cameron may think he’s going to roll back our rights and our tenancies, but we are absolutely determined that he’s not going to do that. The tenants’ movement is going to fight for what is right and what is fair.”

The aims of its inception were to campaign locally against stock transfer and nationally to create a focal point for some hard and protracted lobbying of the Government. Over the years, it has established a coalition to be reckoned with – with tenants taking a leading active role, as individuals and through local and national tenant organisations, allied with trade unionists and a growing body of local and national politicians.

While it may not have won the war, DCH has notched up some significant victories. On the ground, it has defeated moves to transfer homes out of council ownership (although, it has suffered defeats too), with Birmingham – as the largest council landlord in the country – undoubtedly a flagship win. For several years running, it has won the backing of delegates at the Labour Party Conference for the so-called ‘Fourth Option’ of direct investment in council housing.

Perhaps its most significant victory is to demonstrate that tenants are more than capable of taking a decisive stand in determining the fate of their homes and communities, rather than being sidelined as passive by-standers.

“In 2000, the pundits were predicting the end of council housing. While we haven’t won the whole thing we have defied privatisation and we take pride in putting council housing back on the policy table,” said Short, a Tower Hamlets council tenant.

Part of the issue revolves around the principle of democratic accountability. “We have in that sense a unique position in that we get to elect our landlord,” Short said. “That means there is a way of exerting a check on rent rises, or abuses, or privatisation. Council housing is decent, secure and affordable – or should be – because it is publically owned and accountable. And that is the very thing that we are prepared to defend. Again and again, when tenants are fighting against privatisation, they are saying it’s not because council housing is perfect, but because the rights we have protect us against the worst of what the private sector can do.”

Like many a campaign, it arose in outrage and anger when it was formed in 1997, but there was also disappointment and dismay: as Short explained, many tenants had taken the newly formed Labour Government’s catchphrase ‘things can only get better’ at its word – and had expected an end to the neglect of council housing. And so it did, but not the way they had anticipated. Rather, councils were somewhat cold shouldered as the stock transfer programme accelerated.

Historic under-investment in council housing, epitomised by the £19 billion backlog of repairs that heralded the birth of the Decent Homes programme, was only adding fuel to the fire.

“[Funding] is important because it’s the under-investment in council housing that has driven privatisation,” Short said.

“The only way that landlords and housing associations – who are the would-be landlords looking to take over – can push through a stock transfer is to say to tenants their homes are under-funded, neglected and in disrepair, and that the only way they can get these repairs done is if they accept a change of landlord. That’s what we call blackmail. We pay enough in our rents to keep our homes up to a good standard but because of the Robbery [the HRA’s negative subsidy] and the under-investment, our homes fell into disrepair.”

For all the principles of the campaign, there’s the personal too. After all, it is arguing over the fate of people’s homes – and hence their families, their communities and more.

“I’ve got daughters,” Short added. “I live in the middle of London. There’s no way – and I have worked part-time for 20 years and more – that I could afford to live in London if it wasn’t for council housing. The same will be true for my daughters. That does give you the determination that this fight must be fought, because if we can’t keep and improve council housing, then for lots of working class people and their families we’ll be rolling back to the days when private slum landlords can dictate when and where you can live.”

Given the current furore over Housing Benefit cuts and the feared impact this will have on low-income families living and working in London, Short is making a timely and painfully poignant point. Both she and the DCH campaigners are adamant that council housing is the only realistic game in town when it comes to providing the necessary numbers of affordable housing to meet local need.

“If you want to create communities and give people control over how they build sustainable communities, then council housing has to be at the heart of it,” Short said. “That’s because it’s cheaper to build and manage and maintain than the alternatives. There has to be a mass council house building programme in order to return it to a tenure of choice.”

This article first ran in Northern Housing magazine, circa September 2010. It was subsequently republished on the Housing Excellence website, 27 October 2010.

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