Cheshire West and Chester Council is seeking new management of Ellesmere Port and Neston’s 5,600 council houses. Unions and Labour councillors insist bringing in an outside organisation to achieve this is the first step towards moving the homes away from the council. DAVID NORBURY reports

CWaC discovered that council houses in the former borough will need £360million in maintenance over the next 30 years after decades of low rents.

A housing stock survey revealed that 30% would fail the decent homes standard and virtually all the remaining stock would fail if no work was carried out.

In Chester and Vale Royal, tenants had already moved to housing associations but in Ellesmere Port they had voted to stay with the council.

Portfolio holder Cllr Herbert Manley (Con, Abbey) says the housing service Cheshire West and Chester inherited was unsatisfactory but the hard work it has put in to turn this around is starting to show.

Following a review which showed the service was no star rated with poor prospects of getting any better, intensive steps were taken by a new management team to bring in improvements.

Earlier this year the council decided to consult tenants on ‘outsourcing’ the management of the homes – but not the stock itself.

The council saw move as a major step towards the badly-needed regeneration of the town’s council houses.

The consultation, which is now closed, was carried out with the support of the community housing panel, which represents tenants and leaseholders and which approved all the consultation material, according to the council.

It was observed by an independent tenant advisor.

"We will be looking for a housing provider with a long track record in delivering the high standard of housing management services we want for our tenants" said Cllr Myles Hogg (Con, Ledsham and Willaston), chairman of the housing stock panel at an earlier stage.

His aspiration has turned into a war of words.

Union claims that Cheshire West and Chester Council is trying to ‘privatise’ the service have been condemned as ‘misleading, mischievous and grossly inaccurate’, by the council.

“First and foremost, in relation to so-called ‘privatisation’, it has been made quite clear to our tenants that the council will retain ownership of the housing stock, continue to be the landlord and retain full responsibility for all landlord and strategic housing functions,” insists council leader Cllr Mike Jones (Con, Broxton).

“Suggestions that we are trying to reverse a vote of tenants taken five years ago under the former authority are therefore deliberately misleading – simply because the consultation subject is management and not stock ownership.”

He added:“In fact, as we have stressed in all the consultation material, this authority, through its elected members, will retain full control of the service.

“In other words, we will still own the houses, decide on policy, set rents and, in conjunction with tenants, determine investment and service priorities.”

But Labour housing spokesperson Cllr Angela Claydon (Grange and Rossmore) has concerns.

“I see this as a backdoor way to eventual stock transfer,” insists the former borough councillor.

“Currently, stock transfer is not a viable option, but this is a way for the Conservative council not to have to concern itself with council housing, which it sees as ‘outside its core business’.

“I can find no evidence that this will benefit tenants in terms of extra money available. There is no extra money as there would be with the previous options for stock transfer.

“This approach is also untried and untested.”

She believes the consultation will not decide the outcome.

“It is not a tenant vote,” she said.

“Soundings are being taken, but the decision will be made by the council’s executive and they can ignore the views of tenants if they wish”.

Cllr Claydon says she is also concerned for the workforce, some of whom have contacted her.

“They are being told they will transfer across to the new management, but if a big concern takes over it may already have its own staff and will need to cut back to make the contract work”.

She insists:“Tenants have consistently told us that they want housing to be locally managed, an Ellesmere Port concern for Ellesmere Port people.

“This seems highly unlikely under new management.

“The Chester and District Housing Trust, for example, is considering merging with another housing association to make economies of scale”.

Cllr Claydon is supported by Cllr Paul Donovan (Lab, Sutton and Manor) who backs local accountability and believes the council should seek funding to deliver and maintain decentŠ affordable homes and estates whilst using directly employed local building workers and apprentices.

Cllr Jones accepts: “Our staff have worked extremely hard to address the massive legacy of service neglect inherited by this authority but whilst improvements have been made, there is some way to go”.

He believes that outsourcing the management of the stock “will also create opportunities for our own staff and guarantee us the best results in the shortest time in helping to create the quality service that our tenants deserve.”

Cllr Manley adds:“We still have a very long way to go before we reach the quality of service that we want for our tenants.

“Spending years playing ‘catch up‘ is unacceptable.

“We believe that introducing expertise, developed over long years of experience, is the quickest way of achieving the high standard of services required.”

The council says full background information has been provided to tenants and leaseholders through question and answer packs and there were drop-in sessions for those who wanted to ask further questions.

Tenants and staff had four weeks to respond.

The council will now consider the results of the consultation and decide whether to move to stage one of the procurement process, when interested organisations would be invited to tender for the contract.

It is likely to be June 2011 before any contract would be awarded.