South Essex Homes – the discussion regarding its future
October 18, 2012 2 Comments
Last night’s Community Services and Culture Scrutiny Committee had only one topic of discussion, the future South Essex Homes (SEH) – the arm’s length management organisation that looks after the Borough of Southend-on-Sea’s council properties.
Council officers are recommending that the seven-year old organisation be brought back in-house. Although a number of reasons will be trotted out to justify this, it really boils down to the desperate need for the council to find savings, facing Government instigated severe cuts for the next few years.
I am not on this committee, but such is the importance of the subject that I felt compelled to attend. There was a good sized audience, made up of quite a few councillors, SEH employers, and council tenants, plus press.
The audience was well-behaved, largely, I suspect, as what they were hearing was to their liking. Although no vote was taken, I think there was a significant majority, if not consensus, among the committee members in their inclination against a move to dissolve SEH.
Cllr Salter gave an indifferent performance as the portfolio holder, her underwhelming protestations as to why tenants could not be consulted because “there is nothing to discuss” did not appear to convince many.
Cllr Woodley had hours of questions (60 or 70 he claimed). Thankfully he took the hint and eventually set the majority aside – although I suggested that he gather his thoughts and circulate them to interested members.
We had an interesting insight into how the Liberal Democrats operate when Cllr Longley appeared to issue a three-line whip to the two members of his group who sit on this committee. When making a comment he effectively instructed them to vote down the proposals.
As to the issue at hand; I am ambivalent. I am ideologically inclined to be favourable to the bringing in-house of SEH. However, I am keen to hear the voices of the tenants, perhaps the most important group in these discussions.
I asked two questions; if there are significant savings to be had from the sharing of HR resources and payroll services, for example, and these are seen as a significant argument in favour of bringing SEH in-house, why weren’t these an obstacle to the creation of SEH?
The savings quoted are said to be used for the building of new council homes – an aspiration I applaud. However, there are a number of questions that arise:
• Why has the council been so sparing in its use of its special powers to bring into use the 1100 or so properties in the borough that have been described as ’long-term’ empty?
• Why has the council allowed developers for years to dilute the provision of social housing in their applications?
• I fear that some of the money saved will be used to offset cuts in other areas – can guarantees be made that this will not happen?
My first question was largely rhetorical, and my second was answered largely with flannel and obfuscation. Still, at least I got my point across (I think).
After three hours of debate nothing was really settled except that the council officers will have to go back to drawing board and re-draft their proposals. In their current form I can see no way that SEH will be brought in-house, yet I realise that the motivation for this is the hard reality of the era of austerity we live in.
Scrutiny committees pass their recommendations to Cabinet who are not bound to adopt them. The discussions and debate are far from over although my view is that the proposals in their current state are effectively dead.