Picture of a judge's wigThe Judge RANTS!Picture of a judge's wig

Date: 21/03/04

Privateers Repelled!

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 body 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 a 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 London, 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 democratically-elected councils.

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 and public statements from MSC Associates - the 'Independent Tenant's Advisor' have also been little more than parrotings of the Council's own statements.

(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 or 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 it 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 stock 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 letter published?

Somehow, however, the word was spread. Public meetings were held. 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 of 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 was 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 doors.

The announcement of the result was marred by the pathetic behaviour of some of the supporters of privatisation, who (not for the first time) threatened violence against those present who campaigned against the policy.

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 democratically.

A change of government policy may well be on the cards. One Welsh 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 who 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 very open and honest about the pros and cons of the transfer..."

As I believe they used to say in the police force, "Don't piss on my boots and tell me it's raining!"

Since then, we have had the usual bleating from the Council about 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.