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Lib Dems oppose Labour's Allocations & Lettings Policy for housing in Newcastle

June 3, 2016 4:32 PM

Liberal Democrat councillors have been prevented by Labour's majority from "calling in" a Cabinet decision for scrutiny in public on the basis that it represents a significant change of policy with regard to allocations and lettings of housing.

Here's what Cllr Greg Stone said in support :
In November last year, Cabinet considered a report on the Allocations and Lettings Work Plan. It agreed a recommendation to delegate authority to the Cabinet member for housing to approve changes to housing policies and tenancy related documentation. However, it did not directly mention any intention to make changes of the kind covered by this decision.
I will read out the relevant sections of that report.
1.1.3 Changes to allocations and lettings policy will need to comply with the government's aim to implement fixed term tenancies for social housing and to make households earning £30,000 and over to pay somewhere near a market rent. Changes to policy will also need to reflect recent legislative change on right to move and Council's commitment to support applicants needing to move for employment and training.
1.1.4 [this is particularly significant] A full round of consultation will be undertaken with partnering RPs, tenants and elected members to ensure changes to policy take account of the broad range of views.
That brings me on to point 2 of the call in letter. The report does not give a great deal of information about the consultation that has taken place on this decision. We therefore ask what feedback has been sought from stakeholders including the tenants voice function, tenants representatives and groups, and elected members, and what views were expressed in that process. We think it is very important to establish the extent to which tenants have been consulted in respect of this proposal - we think we would be failing to represent our constituents effectively if we didn't seek to ensure that tenants voices are heard in this decision-making process.
Para 7 of the report states that the "request for the pilot was made by YHN in response to introduction of KPIs and monitoring requirements as determined by the council. Consultation is said to have taken place with the Cabinet Member and relevant councillors as the representatives of YHN's management board, and the Time Limited Void committee including tenant board members. I have sought the views of my colleagues who are YHN Board Members and they do not recall being consulted. We would welcome clarification of whether this decision has been voluntarily initiated by YHN or whether the administration has encouraged them to pursue this course of action as part of what appears to be a cost-cutting strategy
Para 7.2 states that this pilot will contribute to the review of the Allocations and Lettings Policy due in September 2016, and that "this will include a full and extensive consultation process including existing tenants and applicants as required by the Housing Act 1996, part 6".
Given that consultation appears to be a statutory requirement, we question whether it is appropriate for the changes proposed in this pilot to take place without prior consultation.
DCLG guidance to housing authorities issued in 2012 in respect of part 6 makes it clear that it does apply to existing tenants where it involves an allocation involving a transfer made at the tenant's request and that "accordingly, social tenants applying to the housing authority for a transfer who are considered to have reasonable preference for an allocation must be treated on the same basis as new applicants." However, 1.8 of the 2012 guidance states that "Housing authorities may decide to operate a separate allocation system for transferring tenants who are not in the reasonable preference categories (with a separate waiting list and lettings policy)".
We wish to establish whether the council is seeking to justify this change under this provision.
We further note that the guidance also makes it clear under 5.2 that
"When an alteration is made to a scheme reflecting a major change of policy, an authority must ensure within a reasonable time that those likely to be affected by the change have the effect brought to their attention, taking such steps as the housing authority considers reasonable (s.168(3)). A major policy change would include, for example, any amendment affecting the relative priority of a large number of applicants or a significant alteration to procedures. Housing authorities should be aware that they still have certain duties under s.106 of the Housing Act 1985."
We question whether the authority has taken reasonable steps to ensure that the pilot is being brought to the attention of those likely to be affected by it, and we seek clarification of whether it is considered that this decision complies with the duties specified in the 1985 and 1996 acts.
Moving onto point 3, we feel that the case for this change would be significantly strengthened by an evidence base which sets out a clearer rationale. We think it would be beneficial to set out measurable targets setting out what the anticipated impact of this change will be in respect of housing choice, void management, and creating stable communities.
The 2012 guidance referred to above, and the 2011 Localism Act, specifically refer to an aim of "promoting mobility for existing social tenants". We would like to know more about how this change will impact on tenants' ability to move for reasons relating to work or education, or to family circumstances. I should note at this point that we have subsequently received reassurance that tenants ability to move due to reasons of harassment, health and disability should not fall within the scope of the pilot given that these should fall within Band A, B, C and not Band D.
However, this touches on a further important point. According to the most recent Annual Lettings Review, out of 5700 applicants for housing in the year to March 2015, nearly 5000 were classed as Band D. Only 10% were Band C, 4% were Band B , and none were Band A. If existing tenants are similarly distributed, it seems likely that the overwhelming majority are Band D and therefore are have the potential to fall within the pilot's scope.
Point 4 Linked to this, we think it would be useful to build up a fuller picture of what the pilot hopes to achieve, by requesting further info on current transfer levels and void levels, what the distribution has been of allocations across Bands, and what the overall waiting list performance is. The only information we have been able to find is in the 2015 Annual Lettings Review executive summary, which states
"The number of lettings made to transfer applicants within available stock remain high, accounting for 37% of all lettings. Transfers to sheltered accommodation are also high, this is mainly due to the relocation of existing tenants from specific schemes which were remodelled, and the need for existing tenants to move into more suitable accommodation as their support needs change. Further work is required to understand why transfer levels are high." Transfers to sheltered accommodation would not seem to us to be unreasonable. In respect of the need for further work, are the findings of this work available?
5, 6, and 7 are extensions of this - given the decision has been reached, we would like the opportunity to question the Cabinet member and officers on the extent to which they consider it will enhance achievement of housing policy objectives, what assessment they have made of the disbenefits, and what consideration has been given to unintended consequences such as the effort to free up properties by enabling downsizing. We are also aware that some tenants find themselves in arrears as a result of problems and delays in receiving housing benefit - we think it would be unfair if they find themselves penalised under this pilot as a consequence.
On point 8, we note the pilot is envisaged to generate HRA savings of c. £300,000 - we feel it would be helpful to identify where this saving will be used.
On point 9 we are surprised that the report does not cover implications for Partnership with YHN or forcommunity safety. The report cites decreased incidence of anti social and criminal behavior which would otherwise be transferred to another area, but does not give information on what the effects will be of keeping anti social behavior in particular areas.
Finally, on point 10 the report refers to the legislation requiring the authority to publish their allocation scheme and make a copy available to anyone who seeks it. It suggests YHN will make the pilot scheme available for inspection at its office and take reasonable steps to bring notice of the changes to those it may affect. Given that this decision has been taken on a confidential basis, we would welcome further assurances that the pilot will be publicised openly and that tenants will be made fully aware of it.
To conclude, we think this is a major change to the council's allocations policy and we think that it deserves the opportunity to be debated properly and contextual information provided. The administration needs to justify the reasons for pursuing this course of action.