The leader of Douglas Borough Council has said that the debate surrounding the Department of Social Care’s proposal that from April 1st 2013 new public sector housing tenancies are to be fixed for a two-year term has been clouded by untimely information issued by the department and damaging comments on social media sites from ill-informed observers.
Councillor David Christian JP said that while the Council shared the department’s view that the concept of ‘tenancies for life’ was not only outdated but also fundamentally unfair he and his fellow members did not support the department’s latest proposals. ‘The Council also maintains that the department has no legal right to impose such a measure,’ he added, referring to Section 47 of the Housing Act of 1955 that provides ‘the general management, regulation and control of Douglas Borough Council’s housing stock is vested in and shall be exercised by Douglas Borough Council…’
‘There is no need to change the tenancy agreements,’ he continued. ‘The Council’s tenancy agreements are weekly and provide for tenancy agreements to be terminated with one week’s notice, although that would only be a measure taken under extreme circumstances such as substantial rent arrears or severe antisocial behaviour. Importantly, weekly tenancies provide the Council the flexibility to serve a reasonable period of notice. Under the Island’s landlord and tenant legislation the Council would be required to give tenants on a two-year tenancy considerably longer notice, which removes the flexibility provided by weekly tenancy agreements.
‘The department’s proposal makes much of re-assessing a tenant’s housing needs and “adjusting” the terms of the tenancy, but there is already provision for downsizing or increasing accommodation requirements as set out in the Council’s existing tenancy agreements which provide: ‘The Corporation reserves the right at all time to require a tenant to transfer from a larger dwelling to a smaller dwelling, and vice versa, where it is necessary owing to the increase or decrease in the size of a tenant’s family’.
‘The fixed-term tenancy debate has served to highlight once again the department’s questionable vision for the future of public sector housing. The Council is concerned that government appears to be drip-feeding often highly emotive information to the media ahead of the report into findings from its housing review due to be laid before Tynwald this autumn.
‘Rather than demonstrating sensitivity towards the subject the department is turning the serious matter of the future of public sector housing into something of a media frenzy and causing extreme concern among some tenants who believe – quite wrongly – that they may be at risk of losing their homes under the new proposals. Regrettably this badly judged approach has also given some ill-informed observers the opportunity to direct venomous comments towards social housing tenants. While there will always be a minority of tenants who could afford to transfer to the private housing sector, for the vast majority of tenants social housing offers a lifeline; those people are there because they cannot afford to access any other type of housing.
‘To those criticising Council tenants for the amount of rent they pay, I would pose the question: “Do you honestly expect our tenants to turn up at the town hall and offer to pay an extra £100 towards their rent?”’
Housing and property advisory committee lead member Councillor Carol Malarkey added: ‘Simply put, tenants aren’t to blame for the levels of rent they pay, government is. It is the Department of Social Care, not local authorities, that sets the rents.’
Councillor Christian continued: ‘From the Council’s perspective keeping rent levels artificially low was never a way of gaining votes. In the last election when I was canvassing in Hill’s ward, I made it clear that a housing review was under way and that it could have far-reaching implications for tenants, despite which voting was unaffected. It would appear, however, that there are some members of Tynwald who are adopting a less than transparent approach.
‘The Council’s response to the government’s housing review was extremely comprehensive; tenancy agreements were just one element of our submission. We are therefore disappointed that the department has chosen to air some of its views ahead of the final report. Its actions are only serving to undermine all the hard work this Council and other local authorities contributed to the consultation and distort the stance we are taking.
‘Douglas being a forward-thinking local authority, it was ahead of the game, anyway. Long before Minister Robertshaw launched his housing review the Council was aware changes were needed so implemented its own internal review and has since restructured and streamlined its housing operation to bring a greater focus on front-line services.
‘It is clear government subsidy of public sector housing through the deficiency payments system is unsustainable. But what is also clear is that were government to heed this Council’s call for “authority for authorities” and give us wider powers we could employ our own housing model as set out in our response to the housing review, set realistic rent levels, direct more funds to housing maintenance, remove the need for housing deficiency grants and lessen the burden on the ratepayer. The Council owns 2315 properties valued at around £227 million, so is well qualified to offer a workable cost-effective solution.
‘In an interview on Manx Radio in late 2012 the Minister coyly referred to “the sensitivity of affordability” – means testing in other words. The Council’s submission to the housing review made clear it did not support means testing. The Council believes rents should reflect the true cost of the housing service and, if some tenants have difficulty meeting the rent, then they have recourse to benefits provided through Social Services. To means-test all tenants would simply be unworkable. There are not the administrative mechanisms in place to support it and we do not need any more layers of bureaucracy to what is an already cumbersome and complex system.
‘The Scope of Government report has questioned the number of housing authorities in the Island and would appear to be making a case for a single body. There are currently 17 but the Council would favour a “four plus one” system, the “one” being Douglas. Whatever the future size and scope of local government is to be, housing must be one of its prime functions.
‘This island is not like the adjacent isle. It is made up of small distinct communities and it is the duty of local authorities to serve those individual communities, and recognise and respond to local sensitivities and needs, something a single housing authority could never achieve.’