ONE OF the most important and controversial issues ever to face Macclesfield Borough Council came to a head last week when members decided to sell off their housing stock.
The full council took the decision to set the wheels in motion for a large scale voluntary transfer of all their council houses into the hands of a registered social landlord.
Next year, tenants will be given the chance to vote on whether they would like to see the ownership and management of their estates taken out of the hands of the council.
During a fierce debate which lasted almost three hours, councillors heard that the current Housing Revenue Account (HRA) will fall into deficit of £601,000 by 2005, rising to £10.6 million by 2010.
Sticking with the HRA would result in job losses within the housing department in a bid to remain in profit.
Coun Peter Burns said: "This is not a political issue and if anybody attempts to make it a political issue, let's examine their motives.
"Tonight we are not being asked to set the thing up, but to get the programme started by a simple registration.
"It's about the tenants and when it comes to vote next year, it won't be the council that decides, it will be the tenants. Seventy per cent of people live in their own homes in this borough and in a prosperous borough like this we should help all the tenants achieve that prosperity."
Coun Stephen Carter said: "I too have the interests of the tenants at heart and right from the beginning all political parties have said that it was the tenants view that would be most important.
"My concern was that we didn't get sufficient and decent information to make a decision, and we've still not got all the information required.
"It's my government's policy to promote stock transfer, but all the reports I have seen have said that this is not in the interests of our tenants."
He said that if the council decided to go ahead with the registration, and tenants voted against it next year, they would have wasted £500,000 of taxpayers money.
Recommending a deferral for one year, Coun Lesley Roberts said: "This will be the biggest decision the council takes over these assets for the next 30 years."
Coun Brendan Murphy agreed, saying: "It's better to get it right, than just get it tonight. Maybe we are being railroaded, not for any malicious reason, but because people think it may solve some problems."
But Coun George Marshall said: "You can have all the information in the world but it's not going to alter the fact that we are going to be in deficit, so let's face up to it."
And Coun Hamman added: "We owe it to our tenants to get on with it. A transfer of the estates has been on the cards for over five years and tonight we are only expressing our intention.
"We postponed a decision last year and I feel that to postpone it again would be intolerable for our tenants. It isn't fair to prolong the agony for another year."
Coun Alan Claro said that the leader of the council was hoping to push this through purely to maintain the £5 million a year received from the sale of council houses under the right-to-buy scheme and was upset that the Cabinet had recommended registration after the Housing Review Committee had unanimously agreed that the decision should be deferred.
But Coun Burns said that personal comments were "beneath contempt".
He added: "You have enough indications from the tenants, in my view, to make this decision. But you seem to be almost militating against the tenants wishes."
The council eventually voted 30 to 19 against deferral after Coun Burns said that registering this year meant that the registered social landlord could include borough council housing staff - one of the clear wishes of tenants' groups - while they would lose that option by waiting until the following year.
Coun Frank Keegan said: "What we know is that if we stay as we are, we will start to lose income and the service will degrade and in a few years we would be offering a far lesser service than we would currently wish to offer.
"At the end of the day, the tenants will weigh up all the options and if they don't want to do it, rest assured they will not do it."
They eventually voted by 41 to five, with two abstentions, in favour of seeking a place on the 2004 Housing Stock Transfer Programme, adding that any Registered Social Landlord should comprise existing staff of the borough council housing department.