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Birmingham tenants have dealt a serious blow to the government's campaign to move council houses to housing trusts by rejecting the transfer of 84,000 properties in the city, reported the Financial Times (p2).

The transfer would have been the largest in the UK, allowing the city council to shed£600m in debts to the treasury and the voluntary sector trusts to raise£1.2bn from banks for repairs and rebuilding. To the surprise of the council's cabinet, 41,000 tenants - 67% of those who voted - opposed the transfer. Only 20,300 supported the move.

Housing experts said the result would encourage campaigners against transfers to step up their efforts in other cities and also discourage councils from seeking transfers.

Council leader Albert Bore, whose position is now precarious according to critics, said: 'The transfer was the only way ahead we believed would deliver for all tenants'. He would seek urgent talks with the government on alternative means of raising standards of housing to acceptable levels within eight years. 'Under the current regime it will take 30 years plus', he said.

Last week Glasgow tenants approved the UK's second-biggest stock transfer with 58% of voters approving plans to transfer the city's 80,000 council properties.

Bradford tenants have also approved the transfer of 26,000 homes. They have been promised£175m in repairs and modernisation over the next five years. Banks are lining up to lend money, according to the Conservative-led council, which has told tenants£1.1bn will be spent on their homes in the next 30 years.

The stock transfer programme was launched by the last Conservative government, starting in rural areas. It is now making inroads in urban areas. Councils which have recently published plans to transfer housing stock include Manchester, Sheffield and Middlesbrough.

Despite opposition from Unison and some Labour MPs and councillors, the government hopes 200,000 will be transferred every year, on top of the 600,000 bought by voluntary housing organisations. At that rate, most council homes would have new owners in the next 15 years.


Text message voting will be tested in the local elections in Liverpool on 2 May, reported the Financial Times (p3). Liverpool will also allow up to 20,000 voters in its Everton and Church wards to vote over the internet or by digital telephone: their votes will be counted electronically.

The city council hopes the initiative will help raise the turnout in the two wards from 14.5% and 24.5% in the 2000 local elections. John Stevens, e-democracy manager for BT, which is managing the pilot scheme, said the system would be more secure than the traditional method of marking a cross on paper. Security in the trials will be limited to the use of pin numbers and numerical passwords, which will be sent to voters at their home address.

In Sheffield, a few will be sent smart cards containing a hidden password, to be used in 'electronic kiosks' scattered throughout the city.

John Thornton, director of e-government at the Improvement & Development Agency, said the tests were an important trial of whether e-voting provided the security and confidence required. He added, however, they would probably show that features such as pin numbers were not sufficiently secure or provide confidence needed by electors.

Mr Thornton said it would make sense to use a single digital identification system for voting and access to government services.

Ministers say they will make no decisions about extending the use of e-voting until they see the results of all the trials of various innovative voting methods in 30 towns and cities on 2 May. However, local government minister Nick Raynsford yesterday told councils to be ready to conduct online polls for local and national elections by 2005.


A 'buy Welsh' plan for councils has been rejected as unworkable by the principality's local government leaders, reported the Financial Times (p3).

The idea is being developed by Roger Jones, the new chairman of the Welsh Development Agency. He is keen to see local authorities buying everything from paper towels to gardening services from Welsh companies. Less than half of the£3bn spent every year by the Welsh public sector goes into Welsh companies, said Mr Jones.

The Welsh Local Government Agency has warned such efforts are likely to fall foul of European laws on fair competition. Commenting on the idea, Steve Thomas, head of strategic policy at the WLGA, said, 'If only the world was that simple'.

Authorities tend to go for the cheapest tender. Under best value - and the Welsh equivalent, Wales Programme for Improvement - they must also consider quality.

Mr Thomas said many councils would be delighted if they could buy more from companies in their region. There were hundreds of Welsh companies that would not exist without council work, he said. However, Welsh businesses were often unable to provide large services such as fleet management and building materials.


The Liberal Democrats yesterday sketched an outline of their next general election manifesto with plans for local income taxes to fund schools and a dedicated tax for the health service, reported The Times (p12). The proposals were unveiled as the party prepared to drop its longstanding policy of adding a penny to the standard rate of income tax to raise more money for education.

In its place are likely to come proposals for a radically decentralised NHS and education system in which standards and targets are set and delivered locally. Speaking to a business audience, the party's treasury spokesman Matthew Taylor, proposed letting local education authorities raise part of their budgets directly and decide their priorities with a local income tax still collected by the Inland Revenue.

Local income tax has long been Liberal Democrat policy to replace council tax, but the new proposal links this to part of an authority's education budget. Party officials said that an average local income tax under such a policy would be 3p or 4p in the pound, replacing the£12-13bn currently raised nationally by council tax.


Former detective supt Ray Mallon looks likely to return to office as a powerful elected mayor, a poll suggested yesterday, reported The Times (p12).

Mr Mallon, nicknamed Robocop for his 'zero tolerance' policy as head of Middlesbrough CID, is supported by four times as many voters as his Labour rival for the post of mayor of Middlesbrough. His manifesto, pledging to cut crime with hit squads responding instantly to incidents caught on CCTV cameras, was backed by 40% of respondents compared with 9% for Labour's Sylvia Connolly.

However, the poll for regional newspaper the Northern Echo found that 42% of voters had yet to make up their minds.

Victory on 2 May would be sweet for the one-time adviser to Tony Blair, who has accused Labour MPs as being part of a 'Get Mallon' campaign. Mr Mallon's popularity seems undimmed by his suspension from Cleveland Police during a corruption in 1997 and his eventual resignation in February this year. He admitted 14 disciplinary charges, but said he did so only because he wanted to end the protracted proceedings and stand in the mayoral contest.


An educationist who transformed standards in Birmingham schools is to retire just as Ofsted is to praise the LEA as one of the most successful in the UK, reported The Guardian (p5).

Chief education officer Tim Brighouse, 62, is likely to step down in the autumn, after a successor is found. He wants to undertake research into urban schools, and feels his present job requires someone with more energy.

Ofsted will tomorrow publish a report praising the leadership of the education service, singling out the inspiration given by Professor Brighouse. Birmingham, the UK's largest authority, is expected to be higlighted for 'standing out' in the challenging field of urban education.

Prof Brighouse's appointment in 1993 coincided with the authority's recognition that its schools were in a dire state. An independent commission followed a wide-ranging public inquiry chaired by the outspoken Ted Wragg, of Exeter University. Since then, the LEA's results have improved year-on-year at all levels, and faster than the national averages.


Sixty Liberal Democrats may be prevented from standing in next month's council elections in Harrow after wrongly completing their nomination forms because of a mix-up over the party's name, according to The Guardian (p7).

Lib Dem group leader Chris Noyce and five other sitting councillors were among those who fell foul of a new anti-personation law introduced with backing from their own party. All but three of 63 nomination forms submitted by the party were ruled invalid by Harrow LBC's returning officer. The party's headquarters has signed a certificate stating they would stand as Liberal Democrats but, instead, 60 wrote that they were candidates for the Liberal Democrat Focus team, the title of a newspaper delivered door-to-door.

After taking legal advice, returning officer Gerald Balabanoff ruled the discrepancy left the forms invalid under the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 which requires the titles to match. The measure was introduced to prevent candidates impersonating those of other parties after the infamous 'Literal Democrat' case of the 1994 Euro-elections when official Liberal Democrat candidate Adrian Sanders narrowly lost when the so-called Literal Democrat polled 10,000 votes.

Nominations for the local elections closed last Friday and the local Lib Dems claim they should have been told in advance so they could have altered the nomination forms which were otherwise correct, each with 10 signatures from local residents.

A high court judge yesterday granted the party an injunction ahead of a full hearing later this week after the Liberal Democrats launched a legal challenge.


The government was accused of ignoring large increases in council tax bills and red tape last night after it published a new list of England's top-performing councils, reported The Independent (p2).

Forty-six authorities across the country were awarded 'beacon council' status for their high standards on everything from child adoption to promoting racial equality to neighbourhood renewal.

Conservative local government spokesman Malcolm Moss said that while his party recognised the good work of the winners, the scheme was expensive and time-consuming. He continued: 'It is just this sort of red tape and government-imposed bureaucracy that is helping to push up council tax bills.

'Along with best value and comprehensive performance assessments, it represents the extension of ring-fenced funding, bureaucratic inspection and centralisation. It is yet another sign of Whitehall politicians trying to micromanage local communities'.

Mr Moss said just 130 out of more than 400 local authorities had applied for beacon status.

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