MORE than 200 tenants and council workers joined forces last weekend to protest against the proposed 'sell-off' of council houses in Wrexham.
Council workers, angry residents and Wrexham AM John Marek gathered at a trade union-sponsored rally at the Miners' Institute on Saturday to hear speakers from Wrexham Against Stock Transfer (WASTe) and union reps from UNISON, UCATT and the GMB.
The decision to transfer the houses to Tai Wrecsam, a new, non-profit organisation, was made earlier this summer after the council admitted it can no longer afford to modernise the properties, which need a £274m facelift to bring them up to the standards demanded by the Welsh Assembly by 2012.
Borrowing restrictions mean Wrexham Council can only invest £5m a year on maintenance and improvements, but Tai Wrecsam would not be subject to the same financial constraints, which council chiefs believe will lead to a £30m-a-year cash injection over the next decade.
Up to 13,000 council house tenants will take part in a secret postal ballot next spring about the transfer, and tenants will receive the formal consultation document setting out the proposals in the New Year after it was formally approved by the full council this week.
However, the project has attracted widespread criticism from union officials, leading to a bitter war of words between WASTe chairman Chris Maher and Wrexham Council's chief housing officer Paul Calland.
Speaking at the rally, Dr Marek also slammed the transfer and said: 'I don't want to see a housing Railtrack. There's a real sense of unity among council workers and tenants that they can win the day and defeat the council's planned sell-off.
'A 'No' vote by tenants will signal the end of this backdoor privatisation of public housing.
'I believe this will happen and that the Government will be forced to accept the will of the people. They don't want to lose democratic control over council housing and, at the same time, council workers are making it clear they are concerned for their futures if stock transfer takes place.'
However, Shan Wilkinson, leader of Wrexham Council, defended the project and said it would only go ahead if tenants voted in favour of transfer.
'This is the biggest consultation the council has ever carried out. For the last six months we have been talking and listening to tenants to find out what they want for the future of their homes and service,' she said.
'Considerable work has been carried out with tenants' groups and the Tenant Assembly to ensure that tenants' views and aspirations have been brought together. The council firmly believes transfer is the best way forward but it will be for tenants to decide.'
Mike Booth, regional organiser for UNISON, added that although the union was against housing stock transfer in principle, it was the 'only effective investment option' for Wrexham Council in light of the borrowing restrictions imposed on the local authority.
He said: 'UNISON is incensed that due to Government policy and underfunding for Wrexham Council, UNISON members have been put in this position and tenants are having to make major decisions affecting their homes and services.
'This is political dogma gone mad, without any common sense or concern for council house tenants or public service staff.'