The first of an occasional series trying to work-out why the marginals might be different by Bunnco, your man on the spot.
Have a look at this map.
There’s something familiar about it isn’t there. Notice how similar it is to the map that Mike republished on the main site last week in Is it because the marginals ARE different?
He was referring to a guest slot by geographer, Blair Freebairn, in which Blair tried to show where the election would be won and lost. Freebairn postulated that the battleground would be “heavily concentrated in Medium English Towns and Their Hinterlands (METTHs from now on)…. The marginals are strung like bunting through Britain avoiding the cities and the truly rural. It’s the towns, stupid! These seats are clustered on a fine scale but not a large one, in other words they occur across all parts of the UK but where they do occur you get lots of them…. So we start to get a picture of what a key election battle-ground looks like. It’s a medium sized English town, which is not part of a big conurbation, and was generally held by the Tories until the great Blair landslide of 1997. By contrast with the cities are more socially cohesive with a distinct demographic profile.
We’re now starting to fully understand from ARS polling seems that there is a disproportionate swing from LAB to CON in the English towns and I’m going speculate on a number of practical reasons for this in a short series of articles over the next week or so.
In this article I’ll try to explain why that might be and a throw away remark on a recent thread about the way in which ‘Council House Tenants’ might vote got me thinking. Because it’s not fully appreciated that there aren’t that many ‘Council House Tenants’ in the METTHS.
In the first of my articles I’m going to focus on a little-known process called “LSVT” and whether it partly explains what we’re seeing in the marginal seat polling.
An LSVT is a ‘Large Scale Voluntary Transfer’ of Council Housing to a Registered Social Landlord. This is something I know a fair bit about having been involved in one such transaction. The circumstances were that the Council concerned was faced with a bill of £35m to bring up the thousands of council houses it owned to ‘Decent Homes’ standard.
Government rules prevented the Council from borrowing the money to make the repairs and the process was rigged so that only a Housing Association [Registered Social Landlord] could borrow the money. So the Council had no choice and hived-off their houses and employees to a special-purpose-vehicle, a Housing Association [HA] or Registered Social Landlord [RSL] completely separate from the Council.
The map shows the number of local authorities that have undertaken an LSVT. It’s so close to the Freebairn map, that it’s worth investigating further.
In fact, Councils had an alternative process, the ALMO [arms-length management organisation], where the housing remains owned and managed by the a Council-owned “company” but I want to skip past this at the moment.
Cambridge University’s done a study into the compelling reasons for Councils to transfer their housing stock to an RSL. It allows budgetary and organisational streamlining and the Capital receipt from the transfer [about £30m for a typical council] comes in handy too. Of 354 Local Authorities, 176 (49%) have completed a whole LSVT. More than 1 million dwellings have been transferred from Local Authority to Housing Association sectors. The Transferred stock accounts for half of Housing Association stock.
That’s a lot of houses. It’s a lot of voters. And as we can see from the map, most of the transfers have been completed in the METTHs
My thesis is that in Labour held constituencies, where there is Council Housing transferred under RSL-control, the vote is likely to swing slightly disproportionately away from Labour and to the Conservatives. It’s a small explanation of why the marginals in the towns might be behaving differently, because these METTH constituencies have had a disproportionate numbers of LSVTs.
The useful Parliamentary Paper gives some helpful information about the LSVT process.
The current procedure for LSVT housing transfers takes place in five stages.
1 At the first stage, which is usually in the autumn or winter of each year, local authorities are invited to submit applications for a place on the annual disposals programme. The disposals programme is formally announced at the start of the financial year in the spring.
2 Following selection for a place on the programme, local authorities are required to carry out a tenant consultation to gauge whether the majority of tenants support the transfer. This ballot would normally take place in the spring or summer.
3 Only if the tenants vote in favour of the transfer will the local authority proceed to agree the terms and conditions of the sale with the RSL.
4 At the start of the following calendar year the new landlord must obtain registration with the Housing Corporation.
5 Subject to the transfer complying with the policies of the Department, the Secretary of State may consent to the transfer. Crucially, if consent is granted, the transfer must be completed before the end of the financial year.
Subject to the five tests, the new Housing Associations are able to borrow millions of pounds from Private Finance on the back of the capital value of houses transferred from the Council at about four-grand apiece. [Yes, that’s about £4000 each!]. A combination of the maintenance backlog in most housing stock, asbestos liabilities and controlled rents means that the Council is forced to sell at this knock-down price.
The housing association [RSL] is then able to pay for new bathrooms/ bedrooms/ kitchens/ doubleglazing in double-quick time in a way the Council could never have dreamed of. Tenant satisfaction with the new arrangements tends to be stratospheric. Some of them even thank the Tories, who by now control most of these councils!
Not being able to Blame-The-Council for duff housing is electorally important because nowadays most Councils are Tory. They get off lightly. Even the housing waiting list is insulated from political blame by a new bidding process called “choice based lettings”. It explains part of the ‘unwind’ from Labour in the Social Housing social classes.
Housing policy is generally going quite well in the METTHs which doesn't actively help Labour hang on to vulnerable seats. Former Labour authorities that resisted LSVT have nearly all gone having paid the electoral price for resisting this open goal. And they resisted LSVT for ideological reasons. Some of them have tried to form ALMOs so the stock remained in Council hands, but they’re just not the same.
In the Labour metropolitan councils that are still ‘stockholding, the Council still gets the blame for ghastly housing standards as Austin Mitchell is discovering on “Tower Block of Commons” currently running on C4.
Most RSL’s make a number of ‘promises’ to Tenants in the enabling ballot, normally to deliver a certain number of practical improvements within the first five year period. Over here in Norfolk only Norwich and Great Yarmouth have resisted LSVT. South Norfolk transferred their houses to Saffron Housing in 2004. After just four years of their five-year plan, an independent report highlighted
a) Against a target of 53 additional houses to be built in ten years, the RSL has completed the equivalent of 52 within 4 years with a further 46 currently under construction.
b) Against the 5 year programme totalling £37 million of improvements and repairs, (as at February 2008 with still more than a year to go) the RSL has achieved:
• 162% of the promised rewiring;
• 136% of the promised exterior doors to be replaced;
• 130% of the promised new bathrooms to be installed;
• 118% of the promised homes to have better loft and wall insulation;
• 98% of the promised replacement windows;
• 82% of the promised homes to have central heating installed or upgraded;
• 72% of the promised kitchens have been fitted (Saffron are confident this target will be met)
c) Tenant satisfaction with the RSL is increasing – the last Performance Indicator showed satisfaction overall at 91%.
d) Repairs are completed promptly, for example 99.8% of all emergency repairs are completed on time.”
Two years later in 2010, the South Norfolk RSL houses all have new windows, kitchens, bathrooms and bedrooms. And now they’re building new houses to replenish those lost to the sector by right-to-buy.
social housing subject to LSVT in Norfolk
What’s more, the LSVT RSLs have focused massively on home insulation so they’re greener and cheaper-to-heat leaving more money in the household to be spent as the tenants wish.
In my own backyard in Norwich, you only have to compare houses on one side of the street in Bowthorpe [Norwich City Council, no LSVT] with the other in Costessey [South Norfolk Council LSVT’d to Saffron housing in 2004] to see what a practical difference it makes. Norwich's stock condition is shocking by comparison and last year, Norwich’s tenants passed a vote of no confidence in their council after the ‘Greyhound Opening’ scandal, which dominated the local front pages for weeks.
Why I think this is electorally significant is because ‘Council House Tenants’ see at firsthand how a ‘private’ social landlord can deliver more than the State ever could and more efficiently too. It’s reduced their dependence on the sort of Paternal Big Government that Labour tries to foster. Labour may be blowing the housing dog-whistle but there aren't so many people to hear it.
And so for this narrow band of the population the former Council House tenants now landlorded by RSLs in the METTHs, they are now less electorally-tied to the Council and more predisposed to alternative methods ‘private’ or ‘charitable’ of provision, which plays to the Tory meme. It’s a new take on Right-to-Buy.
The Conservatives now have more than half of all councillors in England ... Labour appears to be in third place in councillor numbers, having slipped behind the Liberal Democrats, and controls only a few more councils. Labour’s policy has insulated these Tory councils from housing problems, which are so electorally toxic.
Councils controlled (England) 2009
No overall control 81
Councillors (England) 2009
[There’s another METTH article following on from this phenomenon next week]
My thesis is that in the 80’s Mrs Thatcher allowed people to buy their own home in Right-to-Buy. It was massively popular but it couldn’t last. In the 90’s Tony Blair almost forced Housing Associations to buy Local Authority homes. It was the right thing to do but he severed an important link between his core-vote and his own Labour Politicians in the process.
Thatcher saw home ownership as an electoral talisman. Wouldn’t it be ironic if Blair’s version of the same policy now helped the Tories win the English Towns.
Bunnco – Your Man On The Spot.
For those of you interested, you can see which Local Authorities have LSVT’d and cross-tabluate to Parliamentary Constituency. Here's the table the map is based upon.