Wednesday, 27 May 2009

Lambeth housing: sell offs, job cuts and rent rises

From Workers Power website:

Demo: 11am Saturday 30 May, assemble Lambeth Town Hall, Brixton

When Lambeth Activists, a caucus of militants in Lambeth Unison, called a public meeting to highlight job cuts in the housing section and the privatisation of the repairs and maintenance service, we got a great response.

Jeremy Dewar reports on a packed meeting and plans for a fightback.Council housing in Lambeth, south London is in a severe crisis after years of corruption and incompetence at the very top. And - as with the wider economic crisis, of which this is an echo - it is the workers, who provide and rely on this public service, that are being made to pay the price.

Labour attacks council housing

In a calculated move, the Labour controlled authority froze council tax, but then made tenants pay for it. Rents have shot up not once but twice since November - a 25 per cent hike at a time when unemployment is rising and average wages falling.While 17,000 are waiting for a council home, 2,000 of whom are in temporary accommodation, the local authority is auctioning off empty properties, even though most need just minimal repairs to be ready to rent.

Again, what timing: up to 75,000 households will be repossessed this year, nationally, but Lambeth anticipates the growing need for affordable rented accommodation... by selling off its stock.

Reg Morrison told the meeting that housing officers had brought down the average time it took to turn round a "void" - making an empty council property ready for renting out again - from 88 days to just 22. But instead of easing the demand for affordable housing, the council has abused this dedicated labour by selling off the properties.Added to this, the council is still trying to hive off whole estates to housing associations.

The latest target is the Ashmole estate, which has only recently voted against privatisation. But there is no rule to stop the authority asking the same question again and again... until it gets the answer it wants. So the Ashmole tenants have again to mount a campaign to ensure a majority understands the issues and votes down the proposal.

The housing department itself was turned into an Arms Length Management Organisation (almo) a few years back on the promise that it could then apply for increased funding from central government and that it would not lead to further privatisation. Even then, the ballot to set it up only succeeded because the "Don't knows" were excluded.

Now the almo, called Lambeth Living, has announced a 20 per cent cut in the workforce - up to one in three posts in some departments. As Dan Jeffery told the meeting, this would mean "each member of staff working an extra 10 hours a week" just for the service to standstill. The fact that there are at least ten consultants earning between £500 and £1,000 a day in Lambeth Living has added to workers' anger.


On top of this, Lambeth Living has also put out to tender First Call, the emergency repairs unit, the concierge service and the north Lambeth cleaners. So much for the promise of no more privatisation.The 18 May public meeting certainly made clear that there was no call from those that use these services for their privatisation.

On the contrary, the number of concierges and cleaners has been halved in recent years and residents wanted the return of their full compliment - not the introduction of cost cutting profiteers. One of the cleaners, who couldn't be present, was reported to have complained, "I've cleaned up faeces, urine, drug needles, and for that I've been offered £6,000 or be turned over to a contractor and end up on the minimum wage."

First Call, on the other hand, is clearly a much-loved service - in complete contrast to the private contractors, Morrison and Connaught, which take the lion's share of the work. The last remaining public sector workers have for the most part been reduced to phoning up the privateers and checking up on their work.

Steve from First Call explained how the contractors milk the system: coming out without the right equipment or parts, then returning to do a rush job and finally fixing the problem properly; each time they will log it as a different job, so getting paid three times! As Steve said, "We are the only people checking up on this. Privatise us and you might as well give them an open chequebook."


Ros Munday, chair of the tenants' council, brought home the human misery this crisis is causing by telling us of a Chinese woman, who was thinking of resigning from her part time job, which brought in £104 a week, because she could not afford the £15 a week rent rise without benefits.

So when Steve Hack of Lambeth Defend Council Housing proposed we all join him on a march from the Town Hall to protest at some vacant properties on Coldharbour Lane, it was agreed unanimously.

The meeting, which was packed with over 60 in attendance, many of whom were active in tenants and residents' associations, also endorsed adding to the slogan of "No selling our homes" those of "No job cuts" and "No privatisation".

A discussion was started over what further action could be taken. Everyone thought the tactic, pioneered by DCH, of occupying homes when they are put up for auction was excellent and could be spread.

I warned that the council would try to drive a wedge between workers and tenants, and that the meeting should set up some kind of joint action committee to support the unions, should strike action become necessary, and to support a rent strike, should the tenants decide on that course of action.

Again, this idea was warmly applauded.A useful debate also looked at putting up a political alternative to New Labour: should we stand protest candidates against Labour in elections?

While there were speeches for and against this idea, a Liberal Democrat candidate hoping to score points by coming to the meeting was swiftly rounded upon and sent packing.

Certainly the absence of a working class alternative to Labour was keenly felt.For now, however, all hands are on deck to build for the demonstration on Saturday.

Leaflets and posters are going up, as both the Unison and GMB union branches as well as the tenants associations and Defend Council Housing have all received a fillip in their fight to defend jobs, public services and council housing.

More coverage in the South London Press.

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