Waveney tenants reject sell-off
Nick Bird, Waveney Defend Council Housing
Council tenants in Waveney have decisively rejected the sell-off of their homes to a housing association. The result of the ballot, released on 3 April, showed that 68% of tenants voted NO to the stock transfer that had been vigorously pushed by Waveney District Council for more than a year. The turnout was high at 79%, leaving no room for doubt about the veracity of the result.
In the last few months, the ruling Tory group on the council had thrown everything at trying to get a yes vote. Glossy leaflets, DVDs, travelling roadshows and a four-page wrap-round in the local paper attempted to convince tenants to support the sell-off of nearly 5,000 council properties for less than £5,000 apiece. The money spent on using council employees to visit tenants in their homes to promote stock transfer is difficult to quantify. They set up a ‘shadow board’ for the proposed new housing association, containing ‘tenants reps’ that nobody had ever heard of. The total amount of council tax payers’ money wasted in this enterprise is well over £500,000 and probably nearer £1 million.
The local campaign against the sell-off was launched at the very beginning of the process. It began slowly, gathering information about the proposals and pulling together a few activists who could get things moving. Waveney TUC, of which I am currently the president, offered its services as a co-ordinating body in the early stages. We arranged a meeting to hear the experience of activists from Cambridge and Colchester who had been involved in previous Defend Council Housing campaigns.
A key turning point was the decision of the local Labour councillors and the Labour MP Bob Blizzard to oppose the sell-off. I think the Tory council had probably assumed that – as it was basically implementing Government policy – it would not meet opposition from the local Labour Party. Instead, it found itself isolated as the coalition around Waveney DCH extended to include Labour, Green and SWP members, independent councillors, tenants association reps and trade union activists, a real united front against the privatisation of council housing. The Liberal Democrats sadly seemed to have no clear view on the situation, and indeed in one early procedural vote their three councillors divided one for, one against and one abstention.
We identified at the start the problems we would face. The council had a great deal of money and we had very little. We felt that tenants would back the NO campaign if they heard the arguments, but feared that they would vote only on the basis of the council’s propaganda or even not vote at all. So we decided on a long term strategy that would see every council home receive our basic leaflet and a series of meetings that would take the campaign message within earshot of every estate. I should also say we had an excellent press officer who kept us periodically in the local paper throughout the whole year.
We held three public meetings in different parts of Lowestoft, which contains the majority of council homes, and two of these were packed to overflowing. We also held meetings in Beccles, Bungay, Halesworth and Reydon, where smaller pockets of housing exist. Bob Blizzard spoke at most of these meetings, giving them a higher profile than might otherwise have been the case and the regional secretary of the builders’ union UCATT also spoke on several occasions. All these meetings were valuable and I feel certain that those who attended would have multiplied the message amongst their friends and neighbours.
The council was not best pleased by our grassroots campaign, denouncing our leaflets for supposed “misleading inaccuracies” in a front page advert in the Waveney Advertiser, and holding up one of our circulars in a full council meeting to bemoan its “falsehoods”. Of course we fought back, pointing out that most of our claims were either legal facts or were featured in the House of Commons report on council housing. I regret to say that on one occasion three of us were ejected from the council chamber for challenging a Tory councillor’s gibberish rather too loudly from the public gallery.
But as the campaign neared its end, it became clear the council was on the defensive. It had to issue statements denying that the money from the sell-off would be used to build a new town hall. Canvassing in the ballot period, activists reported that very few people would admit to voting for the stock transfer. And so it proved. A clear victory on a large turnout, 3050 to 1458. Some DCH activists had not dared hope we would win, doubting we could overcome the council’s influence and resources. I guess it was a timely reminder, amid all the press exposure of multi-million pound loans and donations, that money cannot buy votes or silence dissent. We won!
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