Friday, February 24, 2006

Power to the People

Anne Power, Professor of Public Policy at the LSE, wrote a short piece for the Guardian yesterday, reminding us of yet another failure of the Liberal Democrat/Tory 'progressive partnership' (sic) since 2004.

As she points out, Birmingham tried to hive off the council housing in 2002 in an attempt to generate additional funding for a run-down service operation. As the plan wasn't well thought out, the tenants overwhelmingly rejected and the council returned to the drawing board. What they devised - with the help of Prof Power - was a plan to devolve housing down to district (constituency) level and to create smaller neighbourhood management organisations. These would still have the ability to generate external funding, but would provide much greater tenant influence and a more responsive service operating at a genuinely local level.
But in 2004 the political control of the city changed. The Conservatives, in a compact with Liberal Democrats, took over all executive positions. They decided to "defend council housing" and put all devolution on ice. They slowed to a snail's pace any progress on community options, and rejected the government's funding routes for needy estates, all of which require new arm's-length management. So town-hall management, no extra cash, and a hiatus in community and neighbourhood initiatives form the basis of the current housing agenda.
The full report from the LSE is pretty damning of the lack of progress in housing made since 2004. Despite the Housing Department managing to achieve a star rating, the LSE team don't believe that the current Council plans are viable. Not surprisingly, the cabinet member in charge doesn't think that a report from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation and backed by the LSE is balanced. Well, John Lines should know a lot about being unbalanced.

The Council believes that it has sufficient funding to work towards the 'Decent Homes' Standard - so has slammed the door shut on any further funding. Failure to create localised management groups prevents additional funding being leveraged in, so while the council MIGHT be able to achieve the absolute basic requirements, further environmental improvements and upgrading are unlikely to be affordable.
It seems highly unlikely that sufficient funds can be raised to cover those costs by Birmingham City Council selling its assets and diverting its scarce resources.

Oh yes - the Tories and Liberal Democrats are conspiring to flog off the family silver by 'rationalising' the council estate. This is largely to try to cover the funding hole left by a cockup from last year. You see, the council received additional funding from the government in 2005/06 - thanks to lobbying from the Labour group the previous year - and this was promptly ploughed into service improvements (helping to produce the performance improvements in social care and housing). The only problem with that was that the funding boost was a one-off, so the council faces a tough choice - either raise the council tax or cut services.

I leave it to your imagination which route the Tories will choose. It is certain that their Liberal Democrat lackies will loyally vote with them.

All the current administration are doing is papering over the cracks of a centralised housing organisation, rather than looking to create a structure that can obtain funding to deliver good quality housing that responds to the needs of local people. Nothing new there then.

No comments: