All posts from: October 2009
The Parliament website lists hundreds of special interest groups for MPs to sign up to, but the council housing group is a little different.
What sets the council housing devotees aside from more illustrious groups, such as those dedicated to beer or bees, is that it isn’t a proper all party group.
As its chair, Labour MP for Great Grimsby Austin Mitchell, explained at a report launch yesterday: ‘We are all party, but we can’t call ourselves an all party group because we haven’t got enough Conservatives.’
Perhaps if a few more Tories get in as a result of the general election Mr Mitchell and friends will have more luck attracting Conservative followers.
Or perhaps the current lack of interest says much about the attitude of many grass-roots Tories to council housing.
Following the news that councils will make a ‘major contribution’ to asset sales by selling housing, we’ve been trying to find out how ‘major’ that might be.
The Communities and Local Government department said it didn’t know, but maybe we should ask the Treasury. The Treasury said it did know, but it wasn’t going to tell us.
A cynic might think that is because the numbers don’t really stack up. Earlier this year we heard that right to buy sales had fallen ‘off the cliff’, so that wouldn’t be altogether surprising.
Apparently the figures will be available when the pre-Budget report is published later in the autumn, so we’ll keep an eye out of those.
In the meantime, it does look like the government is wondering if it can use housing sales to help with its debt. A statement from CLG says: ‘Every part of government has a responsibility to do its part to make savings and cut the national debt that includes local government.’
However it goes on to say: ‘Local authorities will remain in control of their assets and decisions on what to sell off will be taken in consultation with communities as is the normal practice.’
Elsewhere, Margaret Thatcher is back in the news. Metro reports that a group of squatters living in her street managed to get £45 together to buy her a book on English heritage and the history of housing for her 84th birthday.
They might have undermined the gesture slightly, however. Firstly by being squatters. And secondly by wrapping the gift in a map of Europe.
Is the government planning to use money from selling off council housing to ease the national debt?
It seems a little unlikely, but it is one view of an odd exchange between Liberal Democrat Treasury spokesman Vince Cable, and chief secretary to the Treasury Liam Byrne, which took place on Monday.
It is certainly an interpretation that occurred to shadow housing minister Grant Shapps, who pointed the relevant clipping out to me at a reception last night.
Vince Cable asked for a statement on the sale of government assets to ease the national debt, which had been announced that day.
Mr Byrne responded with a few lines outlining what everybody already knew – that the government is thinking of flogging the Tote, the Dartford crossing, the student loan book and the channel tunnel rail link to raise an estimated £16 billion – and then added:
‘We know that councils will make a major contribution to the overall level of asset disposals through sales of housing and other assets.’
According to Mr Shapps, a third party asked housing minister John Healey if he knew what the line meant – to which he replied he didn’t know anything about it.
It seems odd that a government that is embarking on a major review of council housing finance designed to allow local authorities to manage their own housing income, would consider trying to channel it back into central government coffers.
It might also be impossible. After further questioning from Mr Cable, Mr Byrne conceded that of the £16 billion of assets the government was planning on selling, £11 billion are owned by local authorities, who would be ‘free to keep those receipts and reinvest them in priorities such as affordable housing and schools’.
All the same, the government’s banking bailouts have left it with a national debt of £170 billion to manage, and it must be exploring every avenue for ways to raise a few quid. If it were to find a few billion down the back of the social housing sofa, that might come in very handy.