Despite his continuing war with the Labour party, the Daily Telegraph and the US Senate, George Galloway has opened a new front against Tower Hamlets council. Building reports on the leader of Respect’s struggle to persuade tenants to fight their council’s housing policy

George Galloway takes a large puff on his Monte Cristo Number Three as he sits in the Roman Cafe in the down-at-heel east London borough of Tower Hamlets. It’s a testament to his unique charisma that he can look so at home with a cheap mug of coffee in one hand and a Cuban cigar in the other.

Everyone in the cafe is charmed by him. He has the gift of focusing on an individual so that they feel they’re the only person in the room. It’s a politician’s trick, but Galloway is a bewitching master of it. Someone remarks that Building isn’t as mainstream as the media he is used to. His icy blue eyes gleam: “Oh, I’ll talk to anyone. What do you want to drink, lads?”

George Galloway

George Galloway

Yet Galloway’s actions since he was elected in May as MP for Bethnal Green & Bow on a socialist, anti-Iraq war ticket will annoy some Building readers, and even cost them work. Galloway has grabbed national and even global headlines in recent years. He was expelled from the Labour party for his opposition to the Iraq war, won £150,000 in libel damages from the Daily Telegraph, and gave a barnstorming performance before a US Senate committee investigating allegations that he was on Saddam Hussein’s payroll. And now he has given his support to the Defend Council Housing movement in Tower Hamlets.

Although his Respect party is not affiliated to Defend Council Housing, he has become its public voice. The aim is to block the transfer of poorly maintained and damaged homes from local authority to housing association control. Since May, seven estates in the borough have been balloted on whether they wanted ownership transferred. Two voted no and a third voted yes by a margin of seven votes; that last vote is now the subject of a judicial review after Galloway and his supporters raised concerns that 50 or so residents did not receive ballot papers. Prior to Galloway’s election, the council won eight ballots on the bounce. Galloway believes that he’s preventing greedy private enterprises imposing higher rents on defenceless tenants; housing associations believe he is wrecking the regeneration of estates that the council can’t afford to run.

In the 45 minutes prior to lighting up his Monte Cristo in the cafe, Galloway was lecturing on this very issue. In a rather bizarre scene, he was being filmed for a DVD in a studio filled with rubble next to the cafe. Defend Council Housing is going to distribute the DVD to residents of the nearby Cranbrook Estate. Lesley Ellis, a leading member of Tower Hamlets’ branch of Defend Council Housing, explains: “We decided to set up a DVD to go to the tenants so they can get some facts. The housing associations sent us some glossy stuff about a 30-year programme, but we’ll probably be dead by the time it’s done.”

Galloway and the campaigners dispute the Labour-run council’s claim that on its own, it will not be able to find the £436m it needs to raise houses to the Decent Homes Standard by 2010. This includes improving bathrooms and the installing central heating. The council adds that the government has told councillors it will not plug the funding gap. So, it opted for a stock transfer, thereby leaving the maintenance and repair of property to housing associations.

Galloway begins his rant to the camera.

Galloway films a DVD. Respect will prevent any further stock transfer ballots if it takes control of the council

Galloway films a DVD. Respect will prevent any further stock transfer ballots if it takes control of the council

“It is absolutely extraordinary that Labour in the east end of London, where Labour was born, where the idea of municipal ownership was born, should be the people most enthusiastic about butchering it and putting it in its grave. Here we have a Labour council straining every sinew to get rid of their own tenants.”

Galloway’s argument is that this amounts to privatisation. Later, in the cafe, he talks about the registered social landlords that will be taking over the stock. “These organisations exist for their own corporate reasons and their own corporate benefits, including their shareholders, to whom they distribute a dividend. They are empire-building.”

Impassioned comments such as these are winning over the tenants. They are also angering the housing associations, which privately accuse Galloway and Defend Council Housing of spreading misinformation. Housing associations are fearful of losing ballots that can cost as much as £1m over a two-to-three year period; it is understood that at least one housing association is considering pulling out of Tower Hamlets. David Orr, the National Housing Federation’s chief executive, points out that housing associations are not-for-profit bodies, rather than the worshippers of Mammon that Galloway portrays. “Housing associations are not private sector in the traditional sense, as they don’t make the profits to disperse to shareholders. This is more about ideology than a proper investigation into what’s best for housing.”

Some of Galloway’s accusations certainly seem questionable. He argues that rents in the semi-privatised sector, as he classifies housing associations, are 20% higher than in council housing. Recent evidence suggests that although this may once have been the case, there is now a marginal difference. Tower Hamlets residents that have been transferred typically pay £70 a week compared to £66 under the council, and government policy is to encourage convergence.

It’s extraordinary Labour should be butchering the idea of municipal ownership. Here we have a Labour council straining every sinew to get rid of their own tenants

Galloway is adamant that a stock transfer ballot is “the least democratic process that I’ve ever come across that’s posing as a democratic process”. In 2001, the council took a vote of more than 80 estates in Tower Hamlets to see if they at least wanted to look into stock transfer, and every one said yes. Galloway says this should have been a straight ballot across the borough, but even on that basis most voters decided in favour of the move. His other argument is that there was a “mismatch of resources between the yes and no campaigns”, with the latter fighting with “leaflets and little paper posters” and the former using “DVDs and glossy magazines”.

Certainly, the housing associations have the advantage when it comes to experience and funds, but the process seems democratic.

Asad Jaman is the project and programme co-ordinator of the partnerships and initiatives team at the council’s housing directorate. He explains that after the borough-wide vote, each estate set up a 20- to 30-person steering group. These bodies, along with typically about 100 other interested residents, then used set selection criteria to choose a candidate housing association for the stock transfer.

Finally, the choice is put to a vote of the entire estate, although Jaman says the steering group can stop the process at any time if it is unsatisfied with stock transfer. “We wanted to give ownership to the residents for the entire selection process,” he says. “And one or two have pulled out before the end, saying that it won’t benefit them, which proves we have given them that ownership.”

Galloway is particularly incensed by Tower Hamlets’ argument that if the government will not fund the repairs, there is no way the council can do so without stock transfer. “I’m familiar with the argument. It’s usually called blackmail or corruption when it happens in other countries, where the government threatens people that if they don’t vote for the governing party they won’t get the resources. Of course, it is all poppycock.”

Galloway argues that as the fourth richest country in the world, the UK can afford to improve its housing. In a recent radio interview, he also argued that the government was bound to meet the Decent Homes Standard by 2010 under European law. This, he said, forced the government to cough up the cash to pay for the repairs and maintenance by 2010, even if it meant that it had to stop “wasting billions of pounds on war and occupation around the world”.

Although Galloway is probably right when he says the government would be “publicly condemned” if it missed the target, he is going too far when he and Defend Council Housing say it is bound by EU law. The Decent Homes Standard is a public service agreement in which targets are set by the Treasury for government departments. If departments come begging for extra money, the Treasury is within its rights to tell them to find other ways of meeting their targets.

The Cranbrook Estate is desperately in need of repair

The Cranbrook Estate is desperately in need of repair

For those residents voting no to stock transfer, the council is going to have to explore other options to improve their houses. But David Edgar, Tower Hamlets’ lead councillor for housing, says two common solutions, PFI and arm’s-length management organisations, have been ruled out as they won’t raise enough cash. Galloway would no doubt object to these anyway. He insists that the council has £25m squirreled away that could be used for repairs and maintenance immediately, and that Respect will spend this if it takes control of Tower Hamlets in next year’s local elections. Edgar says: “I don’t know where he’s got his figures from, but we don’t have anything like the £400m we need.”

Certainly, Galloway’s figures would still leave a vast gap, which the government may or may not fill until shortly before 2010. “No, of course £25m isn’t enough,” he says. “If you’re asking would there be a period in which, without having gone to the private sector with no other money available, repairs, maintenance and new-build would not happen, then, yes, of course. But that has to be set against transferring assets forever and of course we will not be idle during that period, between 2006 and 2009.”

As his cigar burns out, he points out that at least with council housing “tenants can kick their landlord out” at election time, unlike those who have voted for transfer, who will be stuck with the RSLs for 30 years. Arguably, this is Galloway’s strongest point, and it has a visible impact on the half-dozen of his supporters in the cafe, who nod and grin.

Through the interview they have sat transfixed. This is the power Galloway possesses. Whether he is using that power wisely for those Tower Hamlets residents – whose pavements are “strewn with shit” as he puts it – is an altogether different debate.

Galloway on …

Crossrail Seven years – the time needed to construct Crossrail – is a long time in the life of a man, one-10th of his life. Seven years of hell – 24 hours a day, seven days a week – is a lot of hell.
2012 Olympics Neither Sydney nor Athens left anything other than massive indebtedness and substantial white elephants, which benefited local people little. And I predict that the London Olympic Games will be little different.
The Royal London and St Bartholomew’s PFI hospital development It will cost £3m a bed. We’re going into a new megahospital just as megahospitals are going out of fashion. As a concept it’s flawed. The Royal London hospital is a misnomer of course, because you would never find a member of the royal family in there.
Iraq Western consultants are there to make money. All foreigners other than bona fide journalists should leave Iraq, because their lives are not safe. There’s a full-scale insurrection, which is becoming uncontrollable.