Saturday 7th January 2012

By Josh Layton Swindon Advertiser

SWINDON Council has been criticised for failing to negotiate a bigger reduction in the debt it will have to pay to the Government under a new funding system for its housing stock.

The Swindon Tenants’ Campaign Group rallied support for a ‘no’ vote in a ballot over whether to transfer the local authority’s homes to a private housing association.

The result was a victory for the campaigners, but leaves the council having to borrow £140m to pay the Government when the new funding regime begins on April 1.

Birmingham City Council managed to negotiate away almost a quarter of the bill it was saddled with, which was slashed from £434m to £342m.

Campaigner Martin Wicks said: “We as a town have been lumbered with a debt of £145m, which has been cut to £140m. Yet if the group which runs the council had not been so keen to sell off our housing it should have been approaching the Government to say the debt level was still unsatisfactory, particularly as we have a lot of housing which is expensive to maintain.

The council told us the Government said the debt level was not up for negotiation, which we didn’t believe.”

Birmingham secured its £92m cut by presenting a case to Government which included arguing that it had ploughed more money into its stock than other local authorities.

But Mr Wicks believes Swindon had also brought its own stock up to similar levels, as judged by the Decent Homes Standard for quality in social housing.

He said: “Birmingham went to the Government and pointed out what a good job they had done maintaining and improving their housing stock.

They nearly reached 100 per cent for the Decent Homes Standard. When we read that we were amazed because Swindon reached the Decent Homes Standard in 2008.

If Birmingham City Council can press the Government and get a big reduction in their debt level, then why can’t Swindon do the same?”

Coun Russell Holland, cabinet member in charge of housing, called the comparison a red herring, as tenants had been given the opportunity to avoid the debt altogether by voting for the transfer.

He said: “Our debt was reduced, from £145m to £140m, though if the tenants had voted to go ahead with the transfer, it would have been zero.

I think the reason Birmingham’s debt was reduced was to do with their position on demolitions – there is no real comparison.”

Coun Holland said the council would nevertheless write to the Government to see if there was any further room for manoeuvre and change things.

The council had already negotiated with the Government to allow the ballot to go ahead at all,” he added.

If the transfer had gone ahead the Government would have lost out on £140m.”

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