By Cllr Marc Francis, Tower Hamlets Labour Party
Nowhere did the last Labour Government’s stock transfer policy arouse more controversy than in Tower Hamlets. The East End is the birth place of council housing and tenants understandably have a strong emotional attachment to it. Many of the individual estate transfer ballots were won, but others were lost. And in 2007, Labour councillors decided to set up an Arms Length Management Organisation for our remaining estates.
One of those transfers that did get the thumbs up from tenants was that of the Barkantine, Kingsbridge, Samuda and St John’s estates on the Isle of Dogs to a new RSL – Island Homes – set up as a subsidiary of Toynbee Housing. Residents had used the consultation process to negotiate Island Homes being a resident-led organisation, similar to those established by the Housing Action Trust and Estate Renewal Challenge Fund schemes of the 1990s.
Island Homes’ Board of 15 would include eight residents – one tenant and one leaseholder from each of the four estates. The individual estates were to determine their nominees. Toynbee specifically promised that governance arrangement in its Offer Document to tenants, and there is little doubt it played a massive part in securing its majority in the ballot.
Astonishingly, however, the council’s lawyers failed to put that governance arrangement into the legal agreement with Toynbee. Worse was to come, when a Housing Corporation inspection found serious weaknesses at Toynbee and forced its merger with Community to form One Housing Group. Island Homes suddenly found itself part of a very different organisation.
Serious disputes very quickly emerged between Island Homes’ residents and senior executives at One Housing. In 2008, the Board was suspended and replaced with One Housing’s hand-picked “interim” nominees. Residents rightly cried foul, and called on the council to back them up. But without a clear obligation, we had little chance of a successful legal challenge.
The council was not completely powerless, though, and in 2009, we asked Housing Minister, Margaret Beckett, and the Tenant Services Authority to insist that One Housing stick to Toynbee’s promises. Under duress, One Housing agreed an action plan to improve services and restore the resident-majority on Island Homes’ Board – though it continued to refuse to allow the estates themselves to decide who their representatives would be.
To be fair, over the next 12 months, some progress was made, especially in the refurbishment works. But with the election of a new Coalition Government with a very different attitude to social housing and its tenants, One Housing clearly felt emboldened. This January, it set out plans to “collapse” Island Homes into its own structure, replacing it with an Area Residents Board.
A sham consultation followed, in which completely misleading information was given to residents, most responses were taken in face-to-face surveys by One Housing’s own staff and a third of those responding were not even Island Homes’ residents. Inevitably, the number of objections was limited and the plans were quickly rubber-stamped by Island Homes’ own Board, despite the fact it still wasn’t constituted in conformity with the original Offer Document.
These banana republic-style tactics should have no place in the housing association movement. But Tower Hamlets independent Mayor Lutfur Rahman refused to block the assignment of the legal agreement to One Housing and the council’s Overview & Scrutiny Committee has bizarrely waived its own right to challenge that decision. Yet again, residents have been completely let down by those in the Town Hall.
That’s why local Tower Hamlets Labour Party members have overwhelmingly agreed a motion calling for One Housing’s “Preferred Development Partner” status with the Borough to be suspended. Our MP, Jim Fitzpatrick, has also asked the Housing Minister to block the move until an independently-administered ballot of tenants and leaseholders has decided the way forward. Conservative councillors have made similar representations.
Three years ago, Labour’s Margaret Beckett forced the TSA to put pressure on One Housing to stick to its promises. In her quiet understated way, she backed tenants against their aggressive and paternalistic “social” landlord. Grant Shapps has spent the past five years talking the talk about tenants’ rights. His response to the sham consultation over Island Homes’ future will show whether he is prepared to walk the walk.