Speaking at the Extraordinary Full Council meeting of Stevenage Borough Council on 22.9.2011, Liberal Democrat group leader, Cllr. Robin Parker, proposed an amendment to the ruling Labour group’s proposal to take back direct control of the council’s housing management from 1.12.2011, which would have allowed more options to be considered for the future management model for the council’s housing services. The amendment in full was that recommendation 2.3 read:

That having taken account of those considerations in 2.1. and 2.2 above, that the council postpones its decision about the future of Stevenage Homes for 12 months, to enable fuller consideration of, and tenants to be consulted on, a number of other emerging options. Recommendations 2.1 and 2.2 to stand and all subsequent recommendations to be deleted.

Robin Parker said:

The council considered and offered to tenants and leaseholders only two options: 1. stay as the Stevenage Homes Arms Length Organization (ALMO) or 2. come back in house. In a national report, the National Federation of ALMOs give three other possibilities (1. longer term [e.g. 35 year] contracts, 2. that plus a transfer of empty properties and land to the ALMO, or 3. a community and council owned organization [a “CoCo]).

The council officials also said that other options are emerging all the time. This is because it is only a few months since the coalition government changed and relaxed the rules on council house funding and management possibilities, so it is taking a while for these to be researched.

Robin continued:

Some of my objections to rushing into this decision without looking fully at other options are:

  • the council’s consultants and tenants were given only two options; there are others
  • the council gave no evidence that they had made the best decision out of all the options
  • neither option proposed will help solve the projected funding shortfall; others might
  • the council has no plan yet for the organizational structure of housing back in house
  • the council’s projected savings are theoretical and based on an unknown management structure
  • the council have done no work yet on how to maintain the improvements in performance brought about by Stevenage Homes, since it took over from direct management in 2006 – this has been a major benefit to tenants and should not be lost
  • the costs of bringing the service back in house are simply guesswork and range from £390 – 590k
  • the council say they will later on set up a housing commission to look at other options; this will make it a two stage exercise, and therefore more expensive, whereas in 12 months we could have looked at all the options together, with tenants, and done a full and proper exercise which would have dealt with everything in one re-organization, not two
  • Stevenage Homes say they could have matched any projected first year savings, had they been asked to do so
  • how will the new structure be suitably distanced from elected members (as was Stevenage Homes ALMO)? – the council is silent on this.”

The Labour government forced us to set up an ALMO (or something similar) to access funds for improvements to the council’s housing stock, and that was wrong and cost a lot in reorganizations. I am pleased that the coalition government has allowed more flexibility in the ways councils can manage their stock, and said that we can take the management back in house if we so wish. Stevenage Council however has grabbed it back too quickly and without allowing tenants and others to consider any other options.

Note: All Labour councillors present voted down the amendment by 22 to 8, and the officials recommendations were then passed by 22 to 7 with one abstention. All Liberal Democrats voted for the amendment and against the officials’ recommendations.