Saturday, 4 July 2015

Mortgage free Borders back in the red

The controversial decision taken by Borders councillors twelve years ago to privatise the region's entire stock of 6,728 public rented houses meant all of the outstanding loan debt on the properties was cleared at a stroke, mainly thanks to a whopping £59 million hand-out from Chancellor Gordon Brown.

It seemed strange at the time that a Labour controlled Scottish Executive under the direction of Communities Minister Margaret Curran (remember her?) was leading the drive to divest Scottish councils of their responsibility for social rented housing. Councillors were convinced this radical step was 'the only game in town' and made it clear they no longer wanted to preside over a rented sector.

Such was the level of enthusiasm and the size of the cash incentives for the transfer of tens of thousands of Scottish rented homes to housing associations that Mr Brown's Treasury followed up their massive contribution which paid off the Scottish Borders Council loan charges with £920 million for Glasgow and £76 million for Dumfries & Galloway. It seemed money was no object.

In the Borders, the newly formed Scottish Borders Housing Association eventually acquired SBC's houses - they had an open market value in excess of £200 million - for a paltry £23.337 million or £3,468 per property. Even that sum was considerably above the £16.639 million SBHA wanted to pay, and a deal was only concluded after the association tweaked its business plan on no fewer than eleven occasions to make it fit for purpose.

But in 2003 a beaming Ms Curran presided over a signing ceremony at council headquarters when the Scottish housing sale of the century was completed. Most of the proceeds were used to wipe out those loan charges (average £11,684 per house) totalling £78.613 million.

It seemed SBC had virtually washed its hands of housing for good even though only a handful of other Scottish councils would follow their lead as the concept of stock transfer turned sour and soon hit the buffers.

But Borders councillors would go on to sanction the privatisation of a number of other services via the creation of so-called arms length companies, a process which continues to this day.

There were warnings at the time of the transfer that the new arrangements coupled with tenants' right-to-buy would lead to a rented housing crisis in the Borders. And a year after the switch Ms Curran's department stepped in with an allocation of £1.5 million to buy up land for development as the local waiting list for tenancies shot up to 2,500.

The new housing providers were unable to access sufficient funds to maintain the level of house building required to keep up with demand. For example, only 64 'affordable' houses were approved for construction in 2003/4 compared to the 240 needed. By now 8,000 of the region's best quality rented homes had been sold to sitting tenants at giveaway prices under a system kick started by Margaret Thatcher.

Earlier this week the council published the accounts of Bridge Homes, one of several Limited Liability Partnerships (LLP) it has set up in the interests of 'efficiency'. This one was formed in a bid to tackle the continuing chronic shortage of rented housing. It has powers to borrow up to £18.8 million and contribute an additional £3.3 million from the council's own Affordable Housing Investment Budget.

The target seems to be to develop 200 new homes by 2019. It means that if all of the £22.1 million allocated for the project is used then the loan charge on each property will work out on average at £110,500. That's ten times higher than the outstanding charges on the thousands of houses sold for a pittance in 2003.

Could it be that in a few years from now Chancellor George Osborne or his succesor will step in and clear off the loan charges provided SBC agrees to sell off the houses?

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