Home Office minister Meg Hillier last night told Victoria Park residents that the government could step in to halt the privatisation of their estate.
Hillier, MP for Shoreditch and Hackney South, told a packed residents’ association meeting that she had lobbied Sarah McCarthy-Fry, the Treasury minister responsible for the Crown Estate, on their behalf.
She said that McCarthy-Fry could invoke a ‘power of direction’ to override the decisions of the Crown Estate management.
But, Hillier warned, she was still “constrained by legislation”. “Under the law it’s quite clear that the Crown Estate has a responsibility to maximise the return for the tax payer,” she said.
The Crown Estate is owned by central government but independently managed. The Crown Estate Act 1961 directs that its property portfolio should be run to enhance its value and cash return to the Treasury, but “with due regard to the requirements of good management”.
Many of the properties on the Victoria Park Estate are rented out to key workers at below market rates. The Crown Estate gets a return of just 1.5 per cent on these properties, said Hillier.
Crown Estate residents learned of plans to sell off their homes to private landlords in January. Resident Phillip Attwood said the proposals came “completely out of the blue”.
“We got a letter from them saying they were proposing to sell off all the estates in London to a company with the same tone,” he said. He said it was unclear what ‘tone’ meant in this context.
“The trouble is, because it’s the Crown Estate it’s not like it’s a public company,” Atwood continued. “It’s an unusual entity so it’s difficult to know where to go to find out more.”
Attwood said residents were concerned that a change in ownership could lead to a drop in standards and increased costs. He said his service charges had increased more than four-fold after the estate management was outsourced to a private company.
Hillier appeared to slip up when she warned residents that their campaign must continue through a possible change of government after 6 May. This is the rumoured date of the next general election, but no official date has been set.
“We also of course have a general election looming on May 6,” she said. “It does mean that whatever happens in the next few weeks you need to be vigilant and you need to be ready to lobby whatever minister is in charge after the election.”
Crown Estate residents from across London will hold a demonstration next Tuesday 23 March. They will march from the Crown Estates head office in Burlington Place, near Regent Street, to Buckingham Palace, where they will present a petition to the Queen.
Victoria Park resident Brian Munro, a train driver and RMT activist who is organising the demonstration, said: “It should be a really, really good rally, so we need everybody to come together. I know that’s hard if you are working. Go sick; take annual leave; fall down the stairs, break your ankle, we’ll wheel you there.”
“So do what you have to do. Come to the demonstration. We are definitely going to win.”