Below is a letter of complaint sent by us to the Secretary of State of the Department of Communities and Local Government, about the conduct of the Council in the ballot process, which we believed to be in breach of the Statutory Guidance which it was supposed to follow. It was sent before the ballot had been completed. Although we got the result we wanted it’s worth recording the conduct of the Council. We have as yet had no response from the Secretary of State.

Submission from Swindon Tenants Campaign Group

To the Secretary of State – Department of Communities and Local Government

Swindon Council Consultation on transfer of Council housing to a Housing Association

Swindon Council has said that it will abide by the statutory guidance for ballot for stock transfer (The Housing Act 1985: Schedule 3Aconsultation before disposal to private sector landlord: Statutory guidance – paragraph 3: requirements as to consultation Issued in July 2009 by the Department of Communities and Local Government). The guidance states that:

Tenants need to understand why the local authority is proposing to transfer their housing, but should not feel that the main purpose of the consultation document is to sell the transfer; rather, it should give neutral information. A balanced and informative approach is needed, which provides brief information on all the options that have been considered. ”

It is quite apparent from the conduct of the Council and the material they have produced that it is not providing “neutral information” nor “a balanced and informative approach”. It is presenting material is a way which is misleading and is designed to lead tenants to conclude that there is no alternative to selling our homes to a Housing Association.

For instance statements presented near the front of the ‘offer document’ give a false impression of what the would-be Housing Association would provide and contradict what is said later in the document. Knowing that some tenants will not read through all fifty pages “facts” are presented early in the document which are at best ambiguous and open to misinterpretation and at worst designed to mislead tenants. On page 7 we read that the new landlord would be able to provide

“modern kitchens to all homes in the next five years”. This is misleading because it may be read by tenants as meaning that all will get a new kitchen in the next five years. But nearly half of us already have a modern kitchen so we won’t get another one inside five years. Later in the document it does mention a 12 years period for a new kitchen but not everybody will read all of the document. Why was this period not mentioned on page 7?

“Upgrading all sheltered housing in the next ten years”. Once again this is misleading. As Lead Member Russell Holland has admitted in reply to a question at a Council meeting, “Works will commence on the sheltered housing stock to ensure the top priority schemes are fit for purpose over the next ten years”. In other words only “priority schemes” will be upgraded in the first ten years – perhaps a quarter of them. The rest will be completed “during the business plan period”, that is over 30 years. Yet this information is not in the ‘offer document’.

Later on in the document it makes promises of what work will be done which are conditional on “where needed”, “where required” but of course it does not specify what that means.

On Page 7 of the document the Council mentions only the number of houses that the HA would be able to carry out “structural repairs and thermal improvements on”. It says: “Without proper investment in non-traditional homes, these properties will deteriorate and could become uninhabitable.” This is quite clearly an attempt to imply that if tenants vote to stay with the Council then these will be the dire consequences. This is nothing other than scaremongering and an attempt to ‘lead’ tenants to vote for transfer.The document does have to admit later on that the difference between what the Council could do and what the Housing Association could do is only a difference of less than 200 homes in ten years.

At the very least the promises for sheltered accommodation fail to abide by the statutory guidance which says that

The consultation document should enable each tenant to identify the works that will be carried out to his / her home if the transfer goes ahead. ”

Formulations such as “where needed” or “where required” fail to enable each tenant to be clear on what is being promised for them.

Another source of pressure on tenants in sheltered accommodation was the threat that they might lose their resident wardens if tenants voted to stay with the Council.

Rents

On Page 6 of the offer document “Fact 1” gives the impression that the Council could not give a guarantee on future rent increases. It says:

Swindon Housing Association would also give a contractually binding guarantee for the five years following transfer that your rent would not go up each year by more than the rate of inflation plus 0.5% plus £2.00 per week, even if the government formula changes. The Council could not give such a guarantee on future rent increases.”

The way that is written gives the impression that the Council cannot give any guarantee on “future rent increases”. This is, of course, not true. The position is clarified later on in the document and the difference in the “guarantee” is one year. Which is to say that the Council cannot say what future government policy will be after 2016.

The Capital Receipt

The Council has failed to follow the statutory guidance which says that information should be provided on “how the local authority proposes to use any proceeds from the sale”. (Statutory guidance ” – Annex 1Para 11“Other information that should be available is how the local authority proposes to use any proceeds from the sale” )

The ‘offer document’ merely speaks of allocating the money “to benefit the wider community”. This hardly clarifies what they are going to do with the receipt.

The pro-sell off DVD and the REG

The DVD which the Council has produced is not “neutral information”. It basically presents the case for transfer. Two members of the Shadow Housing Board appear on the DVD as ordinary tenants asking questions. They are not identified as ‘Shadow Board’ members.

Only one person identifies himself as a member of the Residents Engagement Group. He refers to the ‘new landlord’ rather than the potential landlord.

The REG is supposed to be neutral on the transfer, yet some REG members have participated in producing a pro-sell-off DVD. As individuals they have a perfect right to adopt whatever point of view they wish, but as members of the REG they should not have supported the Council producing a throroughly biased pro-sell-off DVD.

The REG members have been treated with contempt by the Council and its officers. For instance

  • The REG voted in favour of tenants being given the ‘upsides and downsides’ of the two options. The Council has merely produced material which sells the transfer. In all the material they have produced there is not a single instance of any risks associated with transfer.
  • The Council voted on version 3 of the ‘offer document’ when the REG had not even finished discussing version 2.
  • The REG passed a resolution which determined that they would meet to check the DVD before it was distributed. The Officers ignored that decisionarranged for showings for individuals, preventing the group discussing and judging whether the DVD was acceptable, whether it was biased and so on.

Some REG members have expressed their anger that they were told that anybody chosen for the Shadow Board would not be able to continue on the REG, as a result of which they did not apply to be on the Shadow Board. Yet two members of the Shadow Board have been allowed to continue to be on both.

Staff giving misleading information to tenants

On their home visits to tenants Council staff have been providing mileading information to tenants in relation to the proposed transfer. I have direct evidence of that myself. Two staff from the homelessness department visited my house and spoke to myself and my partner.

They informed us that “the Council is turning into a Housing Association”. When we explained to them that the Council was proposing to sell our homes to a Housing Association they would not respond.

Secondly, they informed us that the Council had been told it had to transfer the stock. This is not true, of course, the Council itself haddecided to proceed witha ballot on transfer and, indeed, it had decided that transfer was the “preferred option”.

Failure to correct innaccurate comments in the media

The Housing Director Mr Bernie Brannan was quoted in the Swindon Advertiser as saying that “the No campaign” had been told to “withdraw a leaflet” because it was “misleading”. No such request was made of the Swindon Tenants Campaign Group (there is no such animal as “the No campaign”). We checked with the Director of DWA the “independent Tenants Advisor” who was as bemused as we were by theis assertion by Mr Brannan. She confirmed that they had made no such request of us. We asked for Mr Brannan to issue a public retraction of what he told the Advertiser. He has refused to do so. We asked for DWA to issue a public statement confirming that what Mr Brannan had said to the paper was factually incorrect. They have failed to do so.

Interest rates

Whilst the 2nd Stage document mentioned the fact that the government was reducing the interest rate for the borrowing which the Council would have to make to raise the money to pay off the ‘self-financing’ debt, they failed to quantify this and have failed to say what interest rate they would expect the HA to have to pay for its borrowing. Tenants should surely be given the information to judge the consequences of the borrowing associated with the two options. Moreover, since the leader of the ruling group of the Council, has written in the local paper that the cost of borrowing would be the same in either option there should surely have been a retraction of this statement (in the light of the government’s reduction of the interest rate available to Councils), so that all tenants were aware of the fact that the Council’s borrowing rate would be lower than that of an HA.

The Stage 2 letter

The stage 2 letter issued to tenants by the Council fails to inform tenants of 2 things. Firstly, it does not inform them of the results of the consultation. This may have a bearing on the outcome of the ballot because the feedback suggested that the ballot might be a close-run thing; 646 tenants indicated they wanted to remain with the Council, 661 go over to a Housing Association, 107 had not yet decided, and 28 did not want to inform the Council. We believe that the Council did not inform tenants of these figures as it would serve to give notice to them that the ballot could go either way, and might encourage opponents of transfer to cast their vote. This is a material factor because of the sentiment commonly expressed by some tenants that “the Council will do it anyway” regardless of the vote.

At any rate, if the process was “open and transparent” then why did the Council not publish these figures which constituted a significant part of the feedback?

Secondly, the Council’s Stage 2 letter failed to inform tenants as to what they should do if they failed to receive a ballot paper.

Martin Wicks

Swindon Tenants Campaign Group

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