Were 42,000 Sheffield tenants misled?

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SHEFFIELD Council stands accused of ‘not telling the whole truth’ to tenants before a crucial ballot on future management of the city’s housing estates.

Information given ahead of the ballot earlier this year assured tenants that scrapping Sheffield Homes could reduce costs and deliver an improved service.

But a confidential report seen by The Star shows councillors were warned services to tenants could instead ‘deteriorate or fail’ - a risk recognised by the council but not made public. The paperwork also showed likely costs cau sed by the reorganisation which had been kept secret.

In a consultation process costing £400,000, tenants were told the change away from Sheffield Homes would save £1.2 million a year, which would be spent on ‘frontline services’ and help mitigate the impact of cuts.

The council said it wanted to deliver ‘an excellent quality service’ and ‘joined-up services and management, so neighbourhoods can flourish’.

But a secret document called the Project Business Case, listing the pros and cons of sticking with Sheffield Homes or returning to council control, warned services on city estates - currently rated ‘excellent’ - could deteriorate.

In the report, Sheffield Homes chief executive Peter Morton predicted services would be endangered by splitting the work of his organisation between four council departments.

He said: “There is a high risk such a major change would have a negative impact on performance.

“To change the delivery model would generate a very unstable environment, which would require an elaborate risk-management structure to prevent service deterioration or failure.”

Mr Morton said three quarters of council-run housing departments nationally are rated one or no stars out of three, and just two organisations have the ‘excellent’ three-star rating held by Sheffield Homes.

Sheffield Council had refused to release the document following repeated requests under the Freedom of Information Act by trade union Unison and Sheffield South East Labour MP, Clive Betts.

But when Lowedges resident Martin Brighton was also refused, he appealed to the Information Commissioner who ordered the report be made public.

Tenants say they were not told services could worsen ahead of the vote, which the council controlled.

And in the resulting ballot at the start of this year, an overwhelming 88 per cent voted to go back to council management, on a turnout of 55 per cent.

Sheffield Homes is to be wound up in April, and an unspecified number of its 1,000 jobs will be lost.

Lynn Harrison, of Scraithwood Tenants’ and Residents’ Association, said today: “I don’t think the council has told tenants the whole truth - I feel let down.

“We were encouraged to vote to bring housing back under council control because it would be better.”

Mick Daniels, chair of Brushes TARA in Firth Park, said: “In my opinion, the ballot process was not fair because the council handled publicity and Sheffield Homes was not allowed to make its case.

“We were told services would not change or improve, and there would be no risk. Tenants were not given the full picture.”

Tenants had been asked to choose between management by the council or by ‘an arms-length management organisation’.

A Sheffield Homes worker said: “Our comments were ignored, and the company’s name wasn’t even on the ballot paper.”

Joanne Crooks, convenor for trade union Unison at Sheffield Homes, said: “The public should have been allowed to make an informed decision.

“Some tenants might have thought, ‘Are we going to lose the good things we have?’. It’s dishonest to hold back information like that.”

She added the union would seek advice on whether it could make a legal challenge against the result.

Coun Harry Harpham, Sheffield Council’s cabinet member for housing, insisted: “The ballot was not manipulated and the widest-ever consultation was undertaken by the council.”

THE secret Project Business Case document also reveals a raft of additional costs relating to the transfer of housing from Sheffield Homes to the council.

The largest is £200,000 which could be spent on rebranding. A further £179,546 would be needed for a ‘small working party’ of five officials to work on the change over 12 months.

Transfer of staff could result in £35,000 of spending on human resources, and £13,332 for trade union officials. And there would be a £24,564 to £33,156 legal bill.

But the council says axing Sheffield Homes would save £17,500 on accountancy, and £15,000 from the cost of running the company’s board. Ruling Labour councillors have been criticised by one of their own MPs over not giving tenants full information ahead of the ballot.

Clive Betts, Sheffield South East MP, said: “Sheffield Homes should have been allowed to make its case for being retained.”