Councillor Homan apologised that she would have to leave the meeting for a short period during the consideration of this item because of an urgent issue.
Kath Corbett explained that in December 2015 the Cabinet had agreed to pursue a stock transfer, subject to the availability of funding and the negotiation of a satisfactory financial settlement with the government. The government had now decided that it would not support stock transfers with debt write offs. All previous stock transfers, including three in March 2015, had been funded with debt write offs, under the previous Housing Stock Transfer manual which expired in March 2016; Kath Corbett explained that the report had contained a typographical error about the date of the previous transfers. The government had also failed to publish a new Stock Transfer Manual which was required to progress the proposed transfer. The Council and Shadow Board had explored a range of alternative funding options and ways that the transfer could be progressed but these had not been successful. The Council would not therefore be pursuing the transfer any further.
The Leader of the Council explained that when he had been Leader of the Opposition housing estates in the borough had been sold by the Council, often at what he considered to be bargain basement prices. Leaseholders who lived on the West Kensington and Gibbs Green estates were unlikely to be able to continue to live in Hammersmith and Fulham, whilst older leaseholders may not be able to buy again as mortgage providers would not be keen to take them on. Tenants would also suffer, being moved from their homes to other sites. The Council was now trying to renegotiate the deal to make it fairer to residents.
To avoid this happening again the council had wanted to give residents control of their homes and the Residents Commission on Council Housing had suggested that a stock transfer to a community gateway housing association would be the best way to do this. Stock transfers were then being supported by the government and so the proposal was pursued. The government now seemed to oppose stock transfers and so it would be impossible to progress the scheme. The Council would be challenging the government on their change of view. The Council had also set up the resident-led Defend Council Homes Unit which would be working to find other ways to protect residents homes.
A resident asked whether politicians opposed to the plan had lobbied the government to change its views on stock transfers. The Leader said that he didn’t know why the government had changed its policy.
A resident noted that Inside Housing had reported the decision to stop work on the stock transfer on 1 March and asked why the press had been told before residents. The Leader explained that the agenda for the PAC had been published, as required by law, 5 clear days before the meeting; as the report explained that work on the transfer had been stopped it was likely that that was how they had got their story.
A number of residents asked what the Defend Council Homes Unit would do and how it be accountable to residents. The Leader explained that the unit’s task would be to think of new ways to defend homes; it would be structured in a similar way to a commission, with Shirley Cupit acting as its chair. The Defend Council Homes Unit would decide on its own recruitment process for further members, but it was expected to seek wide engagement. The unit would submit proposals to the Council as soon as it was able to.
A resident said that they felt that the Council had, under both the present and the previous administrations, failed to focus sufficiently on providing services to those living in council properties. He felt that the arguments between political parties had distracted from the improvements to the stock and new homes which were needed. At the Phoenix Housing Association in Lewisham this distraction had not existed and services had seemed much better than in Hammersmith and Fulham when he had visited as part of the engagement in the work of the Residents Commission. The Leader of the Council said that politics made a difference and gave residents the chance to choose what future they wanted. He explained that the Council had spent much time and energy over the past few years improving services and making them more resident focussed, which he hoped had been noticed. The Council had asset management plans to ensure that the existing housing stock was properly maintained and also had plans to build 600 new homes by the end of 2019. The Leader explained that there were still problems with contracts which would take time to get right, and that the government imposed rent cut would make it harder to deliver everything which residents wanted. Residents also explained that feedback from estate inspections was now being used to improve the asset management plan, and that the Residents Commission had set out a Blueprint for improvements to services which the council had made significant progress towards.
A resident said that more needed to be done to engage residents and explain the improvements which had been made. It was felt that more direct communication with residents would be helpful, and that residents could be involved more in running services. The Leader said that he did not want to overburden residents by asking them to do work which the council ought to be doing. He also did not want to return to sending out large amounts of Council publicity as this was a waste of money which could be spent on services. The Council did have various e-Newsletters which residents could sign up to.
Councillor Phibbs said that he didn’t want to rerun the debate about whether the stock transfer had been a good idea, although he said that the proposal would have required estate redevelopment to be financially sustainable. He said that he felt much public money had been wasted on the transfer initiative, noting that officer time had not been accounted for in the report. He felt that there should have been greater scrutiny of the programme, noting that when the Residents Commission had presented its report to the PAC the report had not been circulated before the meeting. He felt that the programme should have been stopped earlier and said that it seemed unlikely that residents would have voted for the proposal.
Councillor Connell said Councillors could have requested further items on the Stock Transfer Programme had they wanted to scrutinise spending on it further; he noted however that opposition attendance at PAC meetings had, in his view, been poor.
A resident asked what the Leader of the Council’s view on estate regeneration was. The Leader explained that he generally supported estate regeneration, but that it needed to be supported and controlled by residents, rather than dictated to them.