Lime Legal

Sell off and sell out

Published 04 September 2023

Emma Simmonds reports from the London borough of Camden where tenants are up in arms about council plans to sell off its already inadequate housing stock.

With local authority waiting lists escalating to a shameful high, councils in the capital are opting to sell valuable housing on the open market in a desperate bid to meet government decent homes standard targets.

The number of households on local authority waiting lists in England grew from 1.67 million to a record high of 1.77 million (about five million people) between April 2017 and April 2018.

The demand for council housing is expanding faster than ever – and hugely outstripping supply. And if councils cannot keep pace with the demand, they should at least be expected to hold on to properties and not allow their number to shrink even further. But some councils are doing just that – selling off large parts of their property portfolios to cover budget losses.

One council parting with its precious stock is the London borough of Camden – and Lambeth is following a similar path.

Camden’s troubles go back to 2013 when the government withdrew £283 million of the council’s repairs budget. This followed council tenants’ overwhelming rejection of a transfer of their homes to an arm’s-length management organisation (ALMO), viewed by many as the first step toward privatisation.

In Camden, 77 per cent of tenants voted against the move to an ALMO. But two years ago, 47 per cent of Camden’s housing stock was judged to be below the government’s decent homes standard. The council claimed that, ‘by 2010 this will rise to 70 per cent if a programme of works is not targeted at current and future decent homes failures’.

To raise its stock to government standards, Camden agreed a plan in May 2017 which included the sale of properties. The council said it aimed at ‘raising cash by selling off a small proportion of empty homes and commercial properties, with an initial pilot to raise £11 million from the sale of about 50 properties. The council could then decide to raise £110 million from the sale of less than 2 per cent (500) of properties over the next five years’.

Thus far 66 properties have been sold, raising about £25 million, which Camden council claims can deliver more than 2,400 decent homes. The sales are continuing while the number of households on the borough’s waiting list has reached 18,278.

Eileen Short, chair of Defend Council Housing and a prominent figure in the Camden No Sell Offs campaign, said the decent homes standard distorts the picture. ‘It is not a tenant definition and doesn’t always do the work tenants want,’ she says. It uses a ‘fairly arbitrary set of standards’ as an excuse to push through privatisation.

‘Tenants are saying that there is no democratic mandate or support for selling off council homes. It’s obscene and irresponsible and we’d rather wait to get decent homes than have them sell off council properties.’

The council claims the sell-off plan was based on consultation. Between May and December 2017, 33,000 council tenants and leaseholders were contacted by the council, with only 1,110 replies – a mere 3 per cent response rate.

The result was challenged by Meric Apak, chair of Camden Federation of Tenants and Residents Associations (Camden Fed).

A major concern was that none of the questions made it clear that the council intended to sell off properties.

It included questions such as ‘do you agree the council should spend more money on repairing your home?’ and ‘do you agree that the council should find ways to fill this [funding] gap and meet the [decent homes] standard?’ As Eileen Short pointed out, such flimsy evidence can hardly be said to confirm a tenant mandate for sell offs.

Camden Fed’s No Sell Offs campaign has won the support of Holborn and St Pancras MP Frank Dobson. In 1973/75, as Camden council leader, he instigated the policy of buying some of the properties from private landlords that are now being sold off.

He is against the sales because it represents a reversal and has ‘the effect of re-ghettoising social housing’ because as these more commercially appealing properties disappear, council housing will be restricted to estates.

In a letter to new housing minister John Healey, councillor Chris Philp, chair of the housing and adult social care scrutiny committee in Camden echoed this sentiment. ‘If the government can assist us with decent homes funding, this would remove the need to sell council houses,’ he said.

Healey steps in to head a social housing system in disarray. In Leeds, a recent programme described as ‘market renewal’ resulted in the mass demolition of council stock. With local authority housing across the country operating with varying degrees of private and council control, drawing together government policy is a difficult task.

Council housing currently nets the government an estimated £1.5 billion a year. Meanwhile councils that have retained control of their stock are having to foot massive bills for repair work and are resorting to desperate measures.

‘Tenants say that there is no democratic mandate or support for selling off council homes. It’s obscene and irresponsible and we’d rather wait to get decent homes than have them sell off council properties’

Government plans could result in a fresh approach, with councils allowed greater freedom in self-financing the building and repair of homes.  But Eileen Short sees self-financing as a risk, saying councils would need a, ‘whole series of guarantees if tenants’ homes and security are not to be put at risk’.

John Healey said that, ‘transferring to a housing association should also remain an option that council tenants can choose’ and that ‘there should be equity in the terms of public funding whether they are transferred or retained in the future under self-financing’.

A Camden spokesman told ROOF: ‘Selling properties is the last resort, but we have no other choice. Despite lobbying for five years, we still have not received any direct funding from government to invest in our existing homes. With almost half of our homes needing urgent investment, as a responsible landlord we have to find our own way to get our homes up to the standard Camden’s tenants need and deserve.

‘If and when funding is confirmed, we would reconsider our current approach. Until then we just can’t afford to wait and see while our homes continue to deteriorate.’

Emma Simmonds is a Shelter employee and freelance journalist.