Do we still need council houses?
T HERE is a philosophical debate being had, in council chambers up and down the country, as to what the role of a local authority should be in 21st century Britain. On one side of the argument are the modernisers, who believe that a council should, above anything else, be using its unique position to assist private enterprise in every way possible, to regenerate our local economies. On the other is the traditionalists, who reckon a council should hang on to long-established and socially-important services such as caring for our old folks, emptying our bins – and managing thousands of council houses. The elected representatives of Stoke-on-Trent have, to a greater or lesser extent, always chosen to take the latter route. In truth, their Mandate 4 Change document shows that they would also very much like to follow the modernisers' road of helping economic restructuring. But that is dependant on future backing from public purse schemes such as the Government's City Deal, which is by no means guaranteed.
W hat is guaranteed though, is that in buying its own housing stock from the Government, the city council has taken a huge risk. It could have handed the 19,000 properties over to acknowledged social housing experts such as Epic Housing, Staffordshire Housing or Aspire. Instead, it has chosen to keep its council houses... and the £1bn bill for repairs and maintenance the properties will need in the next three decades. Some will see the council's decision as brave, based on a view that the houses are an appreciating asset. Others will point out that the council still needs to go cap-in-hand to the Government for (rapidly diminishing) grants to look after the houses. The assets could easily become liabilities. So... you pay your money, you take your choice. In the 21st century, should it be the job of elected representatives – essentially, enthusiastic, well-intentioned amateurs – to collect millions of pounds of taxpayers' money to manage a city-wide social housing estate? We sincerely hope that, for the sake of Stoke-on-Trent, our councillors know what they are doing.