Ross Smith originally published in the South Sydney Herald

The recent discovery that the British Serco/G4S detention centre operator group has made overtures to the NSW Government seeking the contract to manage public and community housing has rung loud and strident alarm bells in the social housing sector in NSW.

These overtures began in 2015. The fact that they were kept out of the public arena has added to concerns over the NSW Government’s readiness to engage with a contractor which is the subject of a British Parliamentary Inquiry. The inquiry found the Serco/G4S group had provided substandard public housing with pest infestations, and “intimidated” tenants by entering homes without knocking, under government contracts worth hundreds of millions of dollars.

The decision of the NSW Family and Community Services Minister, Brad Hazzard, to not comment on his June 2016 meeting with Serco or to discuss the NSW Premier’s Innovation Initiative, which focussed on social housing reform, has further heightened the concerns held within the social housing sector.

Serco’s claim that it became part of the Social Housing Capital Investment Fund Work Group set up by the NSW Government because it wanted to provide a solution to the supply of social housing in NSW does not ring true. A far more plausible reality is that the findings of the British Parliamentary Inquiry into Serco, and the attendant souring of Serco’s relationship with the British Government, caused Serco to look for other playgrounds.

Serco’s claim that “we support government and non-government agencies including not-for-profits by bringing expertise in large scale-projects and from social housing experience in the United Kingdom where we provide integrated facilities management and housing services for welfare and immigration applicants” has a similarly false ring.

The most recent example of British expertise in large-scale social housing projects was the redevelopment of the Heygate Estate in Southwark, part of the wider program to regenerate the Elephant and Castle Estate in London. The Knock it Down or Do it Up report of February 12, 2015, prepared by London Housing Assembly, identified the redevelopment as a disastrous foray into housing estate regeneration in conjunction with the private sector. The amount of social/affordable housing delivered fell drastically short of the original proposal, to the point of being miniscule, while the profits of the developer were large. NSW does not need a repeat of the British experience, nor can it afford a repeat, under Serco’s stewardship.

As a side issue, Serco’s six month results report said its “pipeline” of major bids in the Asia Pacific included “additional prison opportunities” in NSW. Does the NSW Government’s clandestine involvement with Serco indicate a desire to apply prison management principles to social housing?

A former Serco senior staffer has been appointed by the NSW Government to review the outsourcing – privatisation – of NSW prisons which are currently operated by the Department of Corrective Services.

A current Serco senior staffer, who is also an official of a club whose membership includes the NSW Premier, was employed for a self-proclaimed “unique skill set” which included personal relationships with government ministers, both past and present.

Has the NSW Government decided that the service delivery and asset management components of two government agencies – Family and Community Services plus Corrective Services – should be delivered by single private sector contractor under a unified model? The social housing sector awaits the answer to this question with bated breath, as do the people they service.