THE Government has backed plans to transfer 19,000 North-East council houses to social landlords – and promised to cancel £130m of debt if the scheme goes through.

Housing minister Kris Hopkins hailed Durham County Council’s proposals as good news for tenants that offers the prospect of renovations and refurbishments.

The 19,000 homes across the former Durham City, Easington and Wear Valley districts are already managed by Durham City Homes, East Durham Homes and Dale and Valley Homes, respectively, but the Labour-led council now wants to hand over ownership too, possibly as early as next year, via a new housing group.

Supporters say this would secure extra cash to improve the houses.

The Government approval means the council can now start consulting tenants on the proposed transfer.

That will happen this summer, followed by a tenants’ vote.

Councillor Eddie Tomlinson, the council’s cabinet member for housing, said: “Government approval is a monumental step in the council’s proposition and goal to improve social housing overall for the benefit of the country.

“Now that we have Government support, we can work with tenants and other key stakeholders across our communities to highlight what transfer would mean for them and how they can get involved in hearing about the council’s proposal, which will lead up to a tenants’ ballot.”

Mr Hopkins added: “I’m pleased we’ve been able to support Durham (County) Council’s proposed transfer of their council housing to a new landlord, by offering to wipe out £130m of their historic housing debt.

“This transfer will be good news for tenants as it offers the opportunity to get renovations and refurbishments made to the housing stock.

“And we’ve agreed with Durham that leaseholders get the protections they deserve in respect of those works.”

Coun Mark Wilkes, the Liberal Democrat housing spokesman, said: “This will allow huge additional investment in housing across the county if tenants support it.

“We must however ensure that tenants’ rights are protected and a link is kept between tenants, all councillors and the new housing organisation.

“Despite having some reservations about this initially, I am now convinced that these changes will provide significant benefits to residents with an even better service than that currently offered.”

Former council houses in other areas of County Durham have already been transferred to social landlords.