Swindon Borough Council tenants are being urged to ‘use their vote’ as consultation begins on the future of council housing.
Through the Swindon Housing Vote, the local authority plans to offer tenants a ballot on whether to remain with the Council or set up a new, not-for-profit housing association to manage its 10,500 homes.
A confidential ballot is scheduled this November, to give every tenant a vote on the future of how their home is managed and run.
Newsletters explaining the process have been sent to every household and Council staff will be visiting every tenant to explain more. There will also be special drop-in consultation sessions and chances to take part in telephone conferences with other tenants.
The consultation and ballot is being driven by changes to the way all councils will pay for housing from April 1, 2012.
The new ‘self-financing’ system means that Swindon Borough Council will have to borrow an estimated extra £145m to pay the Government for part of the national housing debt.
Cllr Russell Holland, Portfolio Holder for One Swindon, Communities and Housing at Swindon Borough Council, said: “This £145m extra borrowing would have to be paid for by Swindon tenants. The new finance rules will result in the Council not having enough money to maintain and improve homes in the future.
“The alternative is to create a new, independent, not-for-profit local housing association to own and manage the Council’s homes. While the housing association would still have to borrow money to buy and improve the homes, it would not have to contribute to the national housing debt.
“This means it would have more money available to modernise homes and invest in local neighbourhoods – especially over the next ten years.”
Nearly 200 councils in England have already transferred all or some of their homes to housing associations. If tenants vote for a new housing association, they would get a new, assured tenancy agreement with all their key rights protected. Rent levels would be subject to the same increases as under the Council and people’s entitlement to Housing Benefit would not change.
Cllr Holland said: “Many people are happy with the way the Council has managed their homes and the improvements they have seen. But we need to be clear about what the new self-financing system will mean.
“More than 40 per cent of Swindon Council’s homes are non-traditional - made from prefabricated materials like concrete panels or metal sheets. These homes are more costly to maintain and many need improving to put right problems with leaks, heat loss and condensation.
“About two-thirds of our 1,500 sheltered homes for older people do not meet modern standards and need a significant amount of investment to meet the needs of our ageing population. These are some of the reasons why the Council wants to give tenants the choice of setting up a new, local housing association.
“But above all the Council's message to tenants is this - it's your home, your future and your choice.”
The Council is working closely with the Resident Engagement Group (REG) throughout the consultation. It is also setting up a shadow board, with tenant members, which would continue to develop the new organisation if tenants vote for this option in November.
Tenant and chair of REG, Melvyn Wright, said: “In the run-up to the ballot, we are urging all tenants to keep an open mind. There is lots of help available to understand the options, and what they mean for the future of housing.
“When the information comes through please take the time to read all of it and get the facts.”
Vice chair of REG, Lynda Barber, said: “This is an important vote on the future of housing in Swindon and every tenant should use their vote to ensure they have their say.”
An Independent Tenant Advisor has been appointed to give tenants free, impartial advice. Tenants can contact the advisor, DWA, on freephone 0800 0855 492, by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org or writing to Freepost, SWC5119, Telford, TF8 7ZA.