Cabinet backs plans to sell council estate

IAN MacKELLAR TENANTS of cash-strapped South Cambridgeshire District Council could face leaking roofs with no prospect of repairs unle


TENANTS of cash-strapped South Cambridgeshire District Council could face leaking roofs with no prospect of repairs unless they vote for a social landlord to take over management of their homes.

The council's cabinet is almost certain to back a plan to sell off the 5,700-home estate at its meeting tomorrow (Thursday), and the full council is likely to agree in spite of objections from independent members.

But tenants are overwhelmingly suspicious of having anyone other than the council as their landlord, Denise Lewis, project manager for the future of the housing stock, will tell the cabinet. At the last consultation in 2005 more than 80 per cent of the largely elderly tenants wanted to keep the status quo.

But with central Government siphoning of half of SCDC's rental income and three-quarters of the proceeds of sales of council houses to prop up public sector landlords and subsidise rents in deprived areas, South Cambridgeshire's housing budget will run dry in two years' time, leaving nothing to pay for repairs and maintenance.

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With one of the lowest Council Tax precepts in England, the council has no choice but to sell off the stock, probably to a social landlord set up for the purpose, as Huntingdonshire did in 2000 when it sold out for £80million to Huntingdonshire Housing Partnership (now trading as the Luminus Group).

But the South Cambs estate would be likely to be worth only £37million after the new company were set up, out of the projected £54.5m gross capital receipts for the homes, according to consultants Tribal Consulting.

But the council would save the projected £323.3million repair and maintenance bill over the next 30 years, say property consultants Savills, who completed a stock condition survey of a sample of one in four or SCDC's properties.

In economic terms, the decision to propose to sell the estate is a no-brainer, say Conservative cabinet members. But they concede that a majority of tenants would have to agree if the sale were to be approved by the Government's Department for Communities and Local Government. Delivering tenants' agreement will involve a major communications campaign against fierce opposition from the Save Council Housing pressure group that has already scuppered Cambridge City Council's sale plans.

In essence the proposition for tenants will be: "If you want a roof over your head, stay with SCDC as landlord. If you want one that doesn't leak, back the sale plan."

SCDC's leader, Councillor Ray Manning, believes tenants would not back a sale to an existing landlord. But they might go with a new company set up by the people they already know at the council "with no baggage".

"Most of our tenants are elderly, so we think the only plan we can sell is the same people operating under a different name. And we have a high proportion of sheltered accommodation, and those tenants tend to be very conservative," he told The Hunts Post.

"We see absolutely no option, but the problem will be persuading the tenants. The only thing that's helping us is that they are so cross that the Government is taking half their rent money. That really has upset them."

If the plan does go through, the council's tenants could have a new landlord committed to large-scale improvements for the future by late next year or early 2010.

In the meantime, nearly a quarter of the homes are technically "non-decent", which means they have not had a new bathroom or kitchen in the past 20 years or fall short on standards of insulation. That backlog must be eliminated before any transfer takes place, said Councillor Simon Edwards, cabinet member responsible for the project.

"We shall meet the decent homes standard by 2010. The problem is to maintain it.

"Our number one priority has to be to look after the tenants," he explained. "The only way to do that is to transfer to a housing association rather than make budget cuts of between 40 and 60 per cent a year on a £10million budget. It's a no-brainer."

Although the estate would have an open-market value of around £400million, there is no open market. Capital values are hugely depressed by sitting tenants on below-market rents with the right to buy in some circumstances.