Tuesday, 22 September 2009

Home Rule: The Mount Estate Way.

The Mount estate is a deprived community on the outskirts of Milford Haven in Pembrokeshire. It hit the news three years ago when the National Grid ran their giant high-pressure pipeline through a woodland run by the community - without any consultation.

Today the Mount Estate hit the news again, with a more positive story. Tenants on the estate are being ballotted to draw down the power to run aspects of the estate themselves, through a TMO or Tenant Managament Organisation. This initiative, the first of it's kind in Wales, is being pioneered by the Mount Community Association, who are confident of a positive outcome to the ballot.

I'm all for these kind of initiatives. There are those on the Left-wing of Welsh politics who have a very ambiguous attitude towards this kind of development. As commentators like the Independent Working Class Association have pointed out, the Left has unfortunately become conflated with statism, so that community-driven solutions are automatically labelled as "backdoor privatisation". This is certainly my experience in Wales, which seems unfortunate to me, as what should be important is what benefits tenants, and not Left-wing activists.

Some years ago, I ran a small campaign in Bridgend in support of a "third option" in the local Housing Transfer ballot. The two existing options were, stay with the Local Authority as council tenants, or transfer to a Housing Association. I argued that there was another option, which was to transfer to a Housing co-operative, or Community Mutual. This option has been specifically designed and pioneered by the Welsh Assembly, and is designed to be tenant led and controlled. In my idealistic young mind, the principle was simple: council tenants live on the estates, why should they not decide how they are run?

In running this campaign, however, I was brought up short by the pointed insights of an experienced local housing activist, an independent character who gave me a lot to think about. He pointed out that the Mutual option had actually been looked at, at an early stage in the housing transfer process, but enthusiasm for the option was very limited. The ballot campaign itself was beset with apathy and indifference. His conclusion was simple, but rather depressing. Tenants in the area just didn't have the confidence to run their own estates, and for that reason, a tenant-run housing co-op just was not feasible.

In light of this, it's revealing to realise that while this is the first TMO of it's kind to be developed in Wales, there are some 270 in existence in England. Why should it be that council tenants in England are that much more ready to take the management of their estates into their own hands? I suspect that somewhere between the dogma of many activists on the left in Wales, and the lack of confidence that seems to afflict many welsh council tenants, you will find the answer.

Looking back now at this seemingly negative experience, the Mount estate gives me a little hope. It sounds to me like people in the area have enough confidence to take that first tentative step towards self-determination. If people on the Left want to brand that as "privatisation" that's up to them. If tenants find that it frees up money to invest in real changes on the estate, and gives them the confidence and self-respect that comes with the realisation that they can manage their own affairs, they are bound to be for it.

At the end of the day, they should be the judge, and no-one else.