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2018 Local Government Service Group Conference
1 January 2018

Conference notes that cuts to investment in social rented homes and instead promoting of home-ownership options such as shared ownership, starter homes and Help to Buy. This has led to a year on year drastic decline in the social housing sector since 1979.

Housing policies have led to a 97% drop in the number of government-funded social rent homes built each year since the Conservatives took office in 2010, and failed to ensure an adequate supply of decent, secure, safe and truly affordable homes that workers and citizens on modest incomes can afford. This has had a disproportionate impact on local government workers, because local government is the lowest paid part of the public sector.

Local government workers are amongst the lowest paid part of the public sector so the lack of affordable housing has had a disproportionate effect on our members who often face a lifetime of insecurity, unsafe and expensive private lets with no hope of a secure and stable home.

UNISON members in local government have found it particularly difficult to afford to live in or near the places where they work. As a consequence, some local government employers are witnessing staff shortages, and a high turnover of staff, with implications for remaining staff whose workloads have increased due to a depleted workforce. Others are struggling to recruit and retain staff.

Government policies continue to represent a sustained attack on local government housing services. The failure to replace stock sold under the Right to Buy has seriously depleted the social housing stock, while the loss of rental income has squeezed housing budgets and income streams that could support investment in new council homes. This in turn has resulted in job losses and an erosion in the pay, terms and conditions of social housing workers.

The Housing and Planning Act 2016 (England) will lead to a further depletion of council housing stock, if plans to sell off ‘higher value’ council homes to fund the extension of the Right to Buy to housing associations are enforced. This will reduce future rental income streams and hamper the ability of councils to invest in new and existing homes. With a reduced stock and reduced rental income, the jobs of maintenance and other housing workers are likely to be put at risk. Inevitably, increased workloads, more stress and cuts to overall pay and conditions are the likely consequences for workers.

Welfare cuts are exacerbating the housing affordability crisis, as increasing numbers of people are struggling to meet housing costs due to widening gaps between the benefit received and rent charged, exposing them to the risk of rent arrears, poverty, evictions and even homelessness. Regeneration schemes are also causing fear in the community, as they often lead to the loss of council homes and the social cleansing of ‘the working poor’ out of inner cities into the outskirts, away from family networks and local connections.

These trends have caused massive workplace stress and risks at work for UNISON members in housing, as they deal with vulnerable members of the public who have immense housing difficulties. The shrinking of local authority housing workforces and welfare changes, including the bedroom tax, have made the jobs of those who remain extremely challenging. The Grenfell Tower tragedy and its broader implications placed even more pressure and stress on local government members in Kensington and Chelsea and beyond. In many local authorities, stress is now the top reason housing workers are signed off sick.

Conference condemns the government’s complete failure to commit funding for “essential fire safety works” in tower blocks following the avoidable Grenfell Tower fire tragedy which exposes its abject failure to invest in new and existing council homes, and the consequences of the privatisation of key housing jobs. The tragedy is an indictment of failed housing policies, privatisation, outsourcing, a chronic lack of investment in council housing and the denigration of council housing. The outsourcing of building regulations and fire safety inspections of high-rise buildings have resulted in many such buildings being unsafe for human habitation, and requiring costly essential remedial safety works to put things right. The government has a duty to provide funding for fire safety improvement works, as without financial support the cost will fall on councils’ rental incomes and could result in further cut backs in jobs and services.

Following the Grenfell Tower tragedy, many councils and other providers’ reaction was rightly immediate, but front line housing workers, with little to no staffing resources being made available, undertook the work of inspection, monitoring and follow up works. The result was increase stress, and a massive increase in workloads. This has not abated, and is not likely to in the near future.

More and more housing associations are now removing themselves from the “social sector” and involving themselves only in the home-ownership options as property developers. Conference is concerned that the commercialisation of housing associations, many of which were set up as a result of transfers of stock from councils, and are now classified as Private Registered Providers, has led to the steady erosion of their ethical and social purpose and an increased threat to the jobs, pay and conditions of local government workers who are outsourced. Some housing associations refuse to recognise local government unions or engage with them after transfer. Experience has shown that when local authority employed housing workers are transferred to housing associations or the private sector, their jobs become less secure and there is downward pressure on pay and conditions.

Conference believes that local authority landlords as democratic and accountable bodies, unlike housing associations, provide a vital part of the provision of affordable housing in the UK to households on low to middle incomes and should be adequately funded and protected for current and future generations.

Conference calls on the local government service group executive to work with the NEC and the community service group executive to:

1) Continue to make the case for a well funded, well resourced council housing service to ensure that there are sufficient homes that are accessible to workers on modest incomes;

2) Undertake research across the union to find out the implications of housing costs and affordability on local government housing workers who have been hit hard by the housing crisis, and use the evidence to campaign for improvements in housing policy;

3) Campaign for staffing levels which enable housing workers to do their jobs effectively and safely, and campaign against the privatisation of housing jobs;

4) Campaign for housing workers to be treated with dignity and respect, and call on councils to make it a condition of their partnership arrangements with housing associations that they recognise unions and that they sign up to UNISON’s Violence at Work Charter to prevent abuse of housing workers;

5) Continue to campaign to increase the supply of council housing and lifetime tenancies on true social rents provided by housing associations, and recognise the fact that local government workers have been hit hard by the housing crisis;

6) Campaign for government funding for necessary fire safety and improvement works in council housing to make them safe for human habitation;

7) Continue to campaign for a restoration of direct public investment in public housing to enable “a new generation of council house building” and for councils to identify and prioritise brown-field land for the development of new council homes;

8) Continue to campaign for councils in England to be given the financial freedom to retain 100% of Right to Buy sale receipts to enable them to use the funds to invest in new council housing;

9) Campaign, in England, for a review of council housing finance and for Housing Revenue Account (HRA) borrowing caps to be abolished and replaced with a new HRA settlement which enables councils to access the finances required for them to build homes and get the existing stock up to the decent homes standard;

10) Campaign to end the Right to Buy across the whole of the UK in line with Scotland and Wales, where there is more emphasis on protecting affordable housing provision;

11) Campaign, alongside Axe the Housing Act/Homes for All Campaign Group, comprising housing campaigners, unions, tenant and resident groups, for a repeal of measures in the Housing and Planning Act to protect existing council homes in England;

12) Campaign for the protection of existing council housing, and call for truly independent compulsory tenant ballots on housing issues, including stock transfers, regeneration and demolition schemes before they go ahead, to ensure that decisions are made for the benefit of local communities.