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FRONT LINE FIRST - HOUSING MANOEUVRES

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As communications director at Shelter in the early 1990s, my mission was to 'move housing up the political agenda'....
As communications director at Shelter in the early 1990s, my mission was to 'move housing up the political agenda'. The reality was that people were more worried about health and crime than housing. It was not until the market crashed that people realised housing matters.

Plus ça change. The Observer reported that the number of households in England has overtaken the number of homes for the first time since records began, fuelling a housing crisis that is driving key workers out of affluent areas. As the paper pointed out, chancellor Gordon Brown has had his own housing boom from receipts from stamp duty and inheritance tax, yet Britain spends less on housing than most industrialised nations, and social housebuilding figures have slumped.

Now councils and their tenants are facing tough decisions about finding the investment to repair and provide homes. And as the conflicting results from stock transfer ballots in Glasgow and Birmingham show, getting these messages across is not easy.

The Glasgow result came at the end of a long and sometimes bitter process, with the 'no' campaigners claiming the council was promoting 'the next Railtrack'. It all made good copy, but the local media was surprisingly even-handed, giving a voice to both sides and providing a high level of information to tenants about their options.

In Birmingham, The Times commented that 'leader Albert Bore seems to have been less successful in turning out the yes vote than his opposite numbers north of the Border. The slick campaign appears to have backfired.'

Birmingham's print media coverage was polarised between the pro-transfer Birmingham Post and the Evening Mail, which was generally against the deal. However, both were equally critical about the council's campaign once the result was confirmed. The council put a premium on face-to-face consultation but this was slammed as 'sending squads of highly paid officials to knock on doors on Sunday mornings'. And most criticism was reserved for the decision to send each tenant a video featuring former Aston Villa football manager Ron Atkinson. 'He may be a respected voice in the TV pundits' lounges,' said the Birmingham Post, 'but he was not the right man to talk about the complexities of housing finance'.

The housing row came at the same time as Birmingham received almost wholly positive coverage for a favourable Ofsted report on its education service. The contrast demonstrates the challenge of promoting a consistent, positive image for large councils in the face of some thorny issues.

Council housing is one of the few remaining services to provoke a strong emotional reaction in people. The stock in Glasgow and Birmingham may be crumbling now, but it was built in an era of municipal confidence when local people took what they were given and were grateful for it. Now they have a voice and some choice about their future.

In Glasgow, the tenants made it clear they were sick of the status quo. As one of many tenants quoted in the local media said: 'It's not enough to urge people to vote 'no' and then tell them you will try to force the government to give the city more money at some unspecified point in the future. That's too late for the single parent with young kids in the crumbling multi-storey.'

In Birmingham, tenants clung on to the umbilical cord of municipalism, at a price. As the Birmingham Post's leader column concluded: 'What householders have really voted for is higher and higher rents and longer and longer delays in repairs and modernisation.'

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