The Judge RANTS!
In the late Spring of 2003, Wrexham County
Borough Council announced that they were to bid to transfer the
county's entire council housing stock to a new company (which the
Council itself had set up).
The stated reason was that the Council couldn't come up
with the money to maintain and refurbish the stock because of spending
restraints by central government. Other unstated reasons might
have included the way in which the Council (which has been Labour-run
for as long as anyone can remember) had mismanaged its resources over
many years, with hundreds of thousands of pounds being spent on such
essentials as twin-town junketing and tarting up those parts of the
town centre which just happened to be outside the Council's own offices.
The move had the support of the local Tenants' Federation (a
which has long been conspicuous by its absence and silence whenever
tenants have been under threat) and the Labour, Tory and 'Radical'
(i.e. Lib Dems who haven't the guts to stand for election as such)
groups on the Council.
Over the succeeding months, with the help of MSC Associates - a
private consultancy company engaged by the Tenants' Association and
paid for by the Council (with our money), tenants were bombarded with
newsletters describing in lurid detail what would happen if the
transfer did not go through ("things would not stay the same, indeed
they would get a lot worse!"), and promises that handing over our
homes to a private company would lead us all into the Golden Future.
The company, called Wrexham Housing - Tai Wrecsam, was set up as
shadow, with a board of fifteen members: five appointees from amongst
the local great and good (including the seemingly-obligatory former
councillors); five appointee stooges to represent the Council's
interests (selected along party lines - three NewLab, one Tory, one
'Radical'); and five 'tenants' representatives'. We were promised we
could vote for the tenants' reps and 'independent' members at some
future point, although what the point would be of electing tenants'
representatives who would be permanently outnumbered was never
satisfactorily explained to us.
Thanks to the policies of central government in Cardiff and
this private company (or 'not-for-profit voluntary organisation' as the
Council would usually put it) would have all overhanging debts written
off, would be allowed to borrow on the open market without limit (using
our homes and rents as collateral) and would also be given millions of
pounds of public subsidy every year. The same central government
refuses point-blank to offer this generous consideration to
It is interesting to note how much of the Council's propaganda
seemed to turn up (or come from) elsewhere. Entire phrases (such as the
ones quoted above), sentences and indeed paragraphs can be found on the
websites of other Councils desperately trying to privatise their own
housing stock (NE Lincs and Kingston-Upon-Thames, to name but two).
It has been even more interesting to note how the newsletters
public statements from MSC Associates - the 'Independent Tenant's
Advisor' have also been little more than parrotings of the Council's
(Still, perhaps we should consider ourselves fortunate in one
regard: in some areas, these expensive PR companies have been called
'Tenants' Friends' by the Council hiring them. Yeuchhh!)
We have had about six 'newsletters' from the Council and three
four more from MSC, plus a video which was so unutterably lame that it
should turn up on ITV1 any evening now. It would certainly win a Bafta
if there was one for 'Most Obviously Scripted Conversations Between
Hand-picked Docile Tenants And Council Officials'.
But how could a Council which is forever pleading poverty when
comes to doing something for those in need possibly produce all this
material and pay a consultancy firm to repeat it all over again in its
own publications? Simple: they used our rent and council tax money. In
all, Wrexham County Borough Council have spent close to £1million
of our money on scaremongering ("pensioners would have to pay to get
their gardens done!") and smears against those of us (both Wrexham
Against Stock Transfer - WASTe - and individual tenants like myself)
who dared to be so bold as to oppose the plan and point out its dangers.
And clear dangers there were, which I don't think I need to
rehearse here. Just go to Defend Council Housing's site
for a fuller picture.
As an individual tenant worried about the future of his home and
permanently sceptical of the desirability of private sector involvement
in the public sector, I did some research of my own on the internet.
And the more I found out, the more opposed to the sell-off I became.
Indeed, 'giveaway' might be a better word, because our homes had been
deliberately undervalued to the point where the new company would
almost have been given money to take them.
And yet, we faced a huge difficulty. Those of us opposed to
transfer did not have six-figure sums of public money to call on to put
tenants fully in the picture as to what was really going on. All along,
it has been a matter of scraping together whatever resources were
available (such as small donations from unions and individuals),
determination and sheer bloody-mindedness. This inherent bias in the
resources available to the respective sides spat in the face of
democracy and rendered the whole process potentially suspect.
There were other strange occurrences as well, such as the two
letters, published two weeks apart in prominent places on the letters
page of the local weekly rag, signed by 22 members of staff of the
Council's Housing Department which were, of course, absolutely 100% in
favour of the Council's policy. I wonder what would have happened to
any attempt by Council staff opposed to the policy to have a
Somehow, however, the word was spread. Public meetings were
Meetings held by the Council and MSC Associates were attended and the
counter-arguments put (in the one I attended, the man - nice bloke,
really - from MSC and his Council minder admitted that the policy was
driven entirely by political considerations).
By and large, 'national' politicians were of no use to us. Both
the county's MPs (Ian Lucas & Martyn Jones) were totally in favour
of privatisation, as was Clwyd South Assembly Member Karen Sinclair.
They are all from one party - can you guess which one, boys and girls?
Jones actually told me in a letter that the money available couldn't be
handed over to the council because "it is almost impossible to
ring-fence councils who would then be able to spend it on anything they
would wish to.". I also wrote to one of the regional AMs, Plaid
Cymru's Janet Ryder, and got a holding reply and nothing further.
Only Dr John Marek AM actually came out publicly against the
policy. Marek, some of you may recall, was 'deselected' by Wrexham
Labour Party last year for daring to criticise the ongoing stupidities
of the Council. He stood as an independent in the Assembly elections
and beat the Stepford Wife whom Labour had selected to replace him. His
input and high public profile was important in getting the
anti-transfer message across.
The balloting process ended at noon on 12 March, and the result
announced that afternoon. Of about 13 000 tenants, 9 722
voted - a
turnout of 68.4%. 41.2% said 'Yes', but 58.8% said 'No'. For the time
being at least, we have managed to keep the privatising wolves from our
The announcement of the result was marred by the pathetic
of some of the supporters of privatisation, who (not for the first
time) threatened violence against those present who campaigned against
The battle is far from over, however. We must now make sure that
Wrexham County Borough Council get their collective arses in gear, join
forces with the tenants and demand that Rhodri Morgan's
Assembly Government makes available to the Council the money which he
was oh-so-keen to hand over to largely unaccountable private sector
landlords. After all, that is what the tenants want - we've said so
A change of government policy may well be on the cards. One
NewLab MP has apparently been going around Westminster telling people
that if the tenants of Wrexham voted down stock transfer, the policy
(in Wales, at least) is dead in the water. That MP may know what she is
talking about: she is Julie Morgan, Rhodri's wife. This should make for
some interesting talk across the breakfast table!
As an individual tenant, I am grateful to all those individuals
helped campaign against this sell-off. And to all of you battling
similar free-market lunacy in your own areas - don't ever give up!
Organise! Tell the tenants what the council and the government would
rather they did not know! Win the tenants' hearts and minds and their
votes will follow!
(for the official media version, see the report here)
PS: The day after the result was announced, tenants received a
letter from the Council's Chief Executive, which contained this phrase:
"Throughout the consultation process, the Council has been
open and honest about the pros and cons of the transfer..."
As I believe they used to say in the police force, "Don't
on my boots and tell me it's raining!"
Since then, we have had the usual bleating from the Council
how it will have to raise rents, cut jobs, "waaah! I wan' my
bockle!"...erm, sorry, but that is the impression they give.
Anything, it seems, to avoid taking the only honourable action they
can, which is to face down their political masters and tell them that
the democratically-expressed wishes of the tenants of Wrexham must be
acceded to, and the money which was to go to line the pockets of
privateers be given to the Council to get the job done. Only the
government's loopy 'private sector good, public sector bad' ideology
stands in the way, and that must be removed.