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Gary Younge
Brickbats and mortar

While his sanity may have been in question, the result of the ballot shortly afterwards was beyond doubt. Those, like Morrin, seeking to defend council housing, won the day by a massive two to one margin. The immediate impact of their victory was staggering enough - they have forced a thoroughgoing rethink of central government's housing strategy and given immense confidence to others in their campaign. But the ramifications of their triumph go way beyond the roofs over their heads.

In politics alone this was a crucial event. A group of local people managed to organise themselves to take control of a future that they believed was being taken away from them. "We're sick of being told what's good for us," says Frank Chance, the chairman of the Defend Council Housing campaign in Birmingham, who was battling cancer even as he took on the council.

In a period characterised by a cynicism and alienation that has degraded our political culture and contributed to the rise of the far right, Chance, Morrin and many others like them filled an apparent vacuum. Their tenacity showed that progressive cultures of resistance not only survive but thrive. Their success suggests that they can effect real change. True, so far roughly only one in four of the referendums on stock transfer have voted no. Less than a week before the Birmingham result, in Glasgow, tenants voted 58% to 42% in favour of transfer. But it is the possibility of effecting outcomes that shapes both the level and nature of political engagement, not the certainty.

When it comes to housing, the government believes that what's best for tenants is to "transfer" their homes from local council control to that of a housing association. Like most New Labour projects it is noble in its aims, self-avowedly non-ideological in its conception and self-evidently dogmatic in its execution. The target is to bring all council housing up to a decent standard by 2010. Unlike some other pledges this is ambitious. Given the staggering level of underinvestment, compounded by almost two decades of wilful decline under the Conservatives, Britain's council housing now has a repair bill of £19bn. The fact that this has not become a national scandal is itself a national scandal, telling us a great deal about the priorities of those who set the political agenda - including the media. The recent narrative of housing has truly been of the story of home ownership, be it negative equity, ballooning prices or interest rates. The experiences of those who live in the 2.6 million homes owned by councils, almost two-thirds of whom are on benefit, have barely gained a mention.

That neglect has reached crisis point. No one on either side of the debate disputes the scale of the problem. The issue is where the money is going to come from to solve it. The Defend Council Housing campaign argues it should come from the government. Council housing is preferable, they say, because it provides more secure tenancies and protection against eviction, lower rents and better democratic accountability than housing associations.

The government's approach to housing is similar to its response to almost every other public service in need of resources, from air traffic control to meals on wheels - privatisation. Housing associations raise their money from the private sector; councils receive theirs from the public purse. The government insists that it simply does not have the resources to foot the bill. Transfer pleases the Treasury's number-crunchers too. Take houses off the councils' books and the money they raise no longer counts as public borrowing.

Only one thing stood in their way - democracy. Housing transfers can only go ahead if tenants back them in a vote. The government decided to help them make up their minds. In Glasgow, the Treasury said they would write off the council's £900m housing debt - but only if they voted yes. In Birmingham, they were promised new kitchens and bathrooms on the same basis. The choice, then, was stark. You can have your repairs done and your housing improved if you vote for transfer. Or you can keep your housing under council control and have nothing.

You will find few who positively enthuse about transfer, but many who accepted it for lack of any alternative. Ask the Department of Transport, Local Government and the Regions why the money for repairs could not be released regardless of the outcome of the vote and it has no answer. And so policy was elevated to principle and those who dissented became dissidents. An insider at the department claimed the Birmingham "no" campaign had misinformed tenants with scare tactics while the city council had run a poor campaign. What the official found impossible to fathom was that the tenants might have examined the case for transfer and found it wanting.

The official Whitehall position is that the Birmingham vote has made no difference to government plans. Privately it is somewhere between panic and reappraisal, prompted by the well-founded fear that the result will embolden others to do the same. Responses range from providing even greater incentives for tenants to vote yes to scrapping the 2010 target altogether. Most likely seems a more vigorous push for a watered-down version of transfer, called arm's-length management, where councils retain ownership but contract out the day-to-day management.

In practice, the performance of housing associations, like that of councils, is mixed. There is nothing intrinsic in housing associations that makes them better landlords. Similarly those who defend council housing are really arguing for the potential of municipal-run housing rather than the reality. Most people's experience of council housing is that it is badly run and indifferently maintained. In theory landlords are democratically accountable but in practice they are often huge, alienating monoliths.

There is no doubt that Britain is in desperate need of affordable, accessible housing. But like all politics it comes down to priorities. Transfer is one option. So is raising taxes, reallocating resources - we have a war on terror, why not have a war on homelessness? - and reinvigorating local democracy so that councils can raise the money to build more homes if voters wish them to do so.

The result in Birmingham rejected the choice between private investment and underinvestment. It did not in itself offer an alternative. Quite what this means for council housing in Birmingham, nobody is yet certain. But for many of the tenants it has given them a sense of ownership of their destiny far more valuable than the ownership of their homes could ever be. "I could tackle the world now," says Chance, just back from the doctors. "Health permitting."

g.younge@theguardian.com

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