Tuesday, 16 February 2010

An Englishman’s Home is not Labour's Castle…

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
Con 207
Lab 33
LD 26
Ind/Other 4
No overall control 81

Councillors (England) 2009
Con 9236
Lab 3743
LD 3759
Ind/Other 1478

[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.


Fernando said...

Bunco, I wonder if another factor is the growth of housing reserved at a reduced cost for local occupancy or special occupations in new housing developments . I’m not sure of the exact rules but I think this applies to all developments over 10 houses and the sale price is usually reduced to 60% of the normal market value. I think 40% of the new housing needs to be in this category. Also, if the houses haven’t sold within a certain period the developer can sell them to anyone, although still at the reduced price and with the usual restrictions on resale. Some of these people would have gone into rented accommodation in the past.
From 1997 onwards Labour did well in these new housing developments. Indeed, in 2001 Labour out-performed the Tories in new estates in this part of north Hampshire – the first time this had happened in my time canvassing. Today, you are hard pushed to find any Labour supporters. This is mirrored by the collapse of Labour in local government in these areas.

bunnco said...

Fernando. This and similar issues will be dealt with in a later article in the series when I start to think about Planning as it especially affects certain METTHs.

Innocent Abroad said...

I very much doubt that housing transfers have had the political effect Bunnco's wishful thinking makes them out to have had. For one thing, such transfers are/were Labour government policy; for another, the local authority still has considerable influence over these new (and sometimes not-so-new) social landlords. Nor is it really true to suggest, as Bunnco does, that they represent an example of the private sector doing what the State cannot - these are non-market organisations, and are arguably subject to heavier State regulation (through the Tenants Services Authority) than Council landlords are.

It's noticeable that Bunnco doesn't produce a shred of polling evidence, and for performance relies on that of just one LSVT ladlord who may or may not be typical.

Wishful thinking I'm afraid Bunnco.

I will offer you a simpler explanation for the METTHs. In these constituencies politics is less salient than in strongholds, because in the latter the political colour is part of the socio-cultural identification of the area. Because people are less interested in politics in the METTHs, the "time for a change" factor - which, rather than a positive desire for whatever it is the Tory party stands for these days - is relatively more important.

In other words, surprise surprise, a marginal seat is one whose voters feel little attachment to their incumbent MP and need relatively little inducement to boot him/her out.

David Herdson said...

Excellent article, bunnco.

IA's right that the policy is a Labour one at a national level but it's not one they've been shouting from the rooftops, perhaps because the party - especially at a local level - doesn't have too much of a buy-in to it. By taking housing services out of the state's direct control, it does - as you remind us - sit uncomfortably close for them to Thatcher's Right to Buy policies.

So while Labour isn't trumpeting a policy that's produced very substantial investment in rented housing, the Tories often are (because Tory councils are more disposed to use the method and there are lots more Tory councils anyway).

IA's point about political identity is a good one but I think his conclusion is misplaced. Politicians tend to look too much at communities too much in terms of wards, constituencies and the like.

In the past - the 1950s through to at least the 1980s - the council housing estates had a very identifiable culture and Labour was completely embedded in it, as it was usually backed up by a Working Mans Club, probably union membership at the local large employer and possibly things like the Co-op and the Council (if it was a Labour area).

It's not just the housing element that's no longer working for Labour; in fact, that's probably one of the last parts to remain. The cultural pillars that bound WWC communities together politically as Labour have crumbled over the last two decades (perhaps not least because so few Labour high-fliers come from such backgrounds): instead of the WMC, there's X-Factor on the telly; there's a choice of supermarkets and the Co-op isn't really identified as other than one of them; large employers outside the state tend to be non-unionised and to the extent that they are, the union-party link is much weaker; finally, party membership has declined so that these estates that might once have merited branches in their own right now do well to see an activist more than once a parliament.

Housing transfer isn't the most important factor in that dynamic but it is one of them. Labour's taken the WWC vote for granted because it's now so out of touch with them. After all, when Labour was really popular from about 1994-2001, how many of its new members came from that background?

Anonymous said...


Bunnco, this is a very interesting analysis.

The Housing Associations I have had personal experience of are certainly doing a good job.

Also, I can vouch for David Herdson's statement that the Co-op isn't viewed as much more than a supermarket. I've been very keen on the Co-op's "localist" ethos for a long time. Yet only in the past year did I discover that Co-op has a link to the Labour party. What's more, it's irrelevant to me.

Morus said...

Good article Bunnco

I'm inclined to agree in part with Innocent Abroad that it might not be as much of a driver of voting behaviour (simply becuase I think that credits people witb knowing more about the process than many do), but there's still something crucial in this piece.

I've long been suspicious of 'marginals polls' because it seemed like taking a non-random sample of seats without any unifying characteristic (like choosing all seats beginning with 'C') - yet in spite of that, we want to understand the marginals as a group.

Finding new and real demographic factors that unite the METTHS (or redefine them) I think is important for getting some fresh insight into how an important subset (previously called marginals, but related for real demographic reasons as well) might play out. Housing is one area I know little about, but I think you've found a strong possibility.

Hope this gets the attention it deserves.

Anonymous said...

Fascinating read Bunnco. Lots of excellent research. You are to be congratulated!


Innocent Abroad said...

I have a lot of sympathy with David Herdson's critique of my earlier comment (which was long enough in itself, Heaven knows).

One thought that occurs to me is this: if 50% (or even 40%) of the population is to enjoy the benefits of higher education, what proportion of the "political classes" will such people make up?

Stoneman said...

Bunco, superb analysis - thanks very much. Going off topic slightly, what are your views on the Greens chances in Norwich South? (As I know this is your neck of the woods.