The new right-to-transfer finally allows tenants to own their homes again, but time is already running out.
The faltering history of council tenants’ attempts to become collective owners of their own estates entered a new phase last week when right-to-transfer regulations finally took effect in England.
It’s taken more than five years, two governments and seven housing ministers to turn an apparently straightforward section of the Housing and Regeneration Act 2008 into a formal requirement for local authorities to co-operate with tenant groups who want to take on their estates.
The story began with the tenants’ choice legislation in 1988 and four years later Westminster council was forced to hand over more than 900 homes.
But by the time it was scrapped in 1996, it had led to the transfer of only a further 500 houses, because it was so complex and also because councils started to transfer housing themselves on a massive scale. In some of these transfers – as with Watmos in Walsall in 2003 – councils agreed with tenants’ organisations that they could take on not just management but ownership of the stock.
Some objected but the Labour government revived the right-to-transfer in 2008, with the intention of ensuring that councils could not block it.
These regulations were implemented last week and, whether intentional or not, it has started of a race. Transfers must be completed by the end of March 2015, which is an extremely tall order as the formal procedures and polling of tenants can take a long time.
Nevertheless several groups are looking at whether transfers would work for them. One, in Wolverhampton, is the Bushbury Hill Estates Management Board. Its near-unanimous support from tenants puts it in a good position to secure support for the transfer itself.
Why should it bother? One reason is that it wants to build new homes, which it can only do if it owns the assets. The estate is almost all three-bedroom houses, and it needs a more varied stock to meet current needs, especially given the pressures of the bedroom tax and an ageing population. The transfer will enable it to make the partnerships needed to carry out new development. Given the organisation’s track record it is difficult to see how the council could turn down the transfer.
This is very different from the situation facing another tenants’ body. The tenants’ groups in West Kensington and Gibbs Green first served notice of their intention to take on ownership in 2009, but Hammersmith & Fulham council ignored the request.
Both the bid and the negative response were motivated by the council’s plans to demolish the two estates. Overlooked by Earls Court, the estates have 760 houses and flats close to tube stations, health centres, a market and other local amenities.
There are five tower blocks but also plenty of low-rise flats and houses, many with gardens. All of these, and the Earls Court convention centre, will disappear to be replaced by 7,500 flats if the council has its way. There will be 1,500 affordable houses included of which half will be needed to house those displaced by the demolition. There will also be a new primary school, leisure centre, health facilities and a five-acre park, according to the council.
The Earls Court residents and advisors will need to be very firm in their resolve if they serve notice on the council. Unlike in Wolverhampton, the council can deploy one of the main objections to transfer that the new rules provide: that it would have a significant detrimental effect on the regeneration of the area. It will then be up to secretary of state to decide if the objection holds. While Eric Pickles may be reluctant to turn down what would be one of the first requests to use the new powers that lands on his desk, so far he has supported the council.
He approved their sale of the land to the developers as recently as last April. The tenants’ race would not only be to meet that March 2015 deadline but also to beat a redevelopment scheme that has already been given a head start.
Original post and comments: Guardian Housing Network