|The Committee were requested to consider the information provided from local Registered Providers of housing services, and the first round of performance information in relation to the Scrutiny Review of Welfare Reform and Financial Inclusion. |
Representatives from Tristar, Endeavour, and Fabrick Group were in attendance to brief Members on key issues and expand on their survey responses (as detailed within the attached report), together with representatives of Stockton Borough Council Housing Options.
The main issues discussed were as follows:
- Following a major campaign via radio, press and leaflets explaining Welfare Reform. Tristar had received fewer calls than anticipated from residents requiring assistance.
- Measures had been put in place to deal with the impact of the introduction of Welfare Reform, such as dedicated officers at Tristar which helped people to downsize due to Under-occupation.
- A small hardship fund was made available for those who could not meet the costs associated with moving.
- Discussion took place around the differing experiences clients had gone through downsizing. There were positive and negative impacts reported such as; clients leaving the support network of family and friends, the welcome reduction of utility bills.
- Tristar was assisting those in under-occupation by introducing a Landlord Discretionary Housing Payment (LDHP).
- Targeting the 'Pathways Employability Service', to those customers wishing to downsize and those which were further away from the labour market.
- Working closely with partners such as Stockton Borough Council's Housing Options and the Stockton and District Advice and Information Service (SDAIS), supporting families affected with financial planning and lifestyle changes. Money advice officers within local Registered Providers would also refer clients facing hardship to foodbanks, and a referral protocol was in place.
- Welfare Reform's main impact to date had been that of rent arrears. Tristar had reported that 12.5% of relevant tenants had not paid any under-occupancy charge and 43% had part-paid.
- The number of empty homes had seen an increase of over 20% since January 2013, with the biggest competitor being the private sector. Incentives had been put in place to encourage demand such as new decoration, providing white goods and utilising show properties. Those incentives implemented had seen a reduction on the number of empty homes by the end of September 2013.
- Due to a shortage of 1 bed properties, making it more difficult for clients to down size where under-occupancy was apparent, some 2 bed properties were being re-designated as 1 bed properties. Rent would be reduced to reflect the re-categorisation and the local Registered Provider would take the financial hit, however this cost could be reduced due to the reduced level of support these families would need.
Tristar reported that there was a continual turnover of properties due to people leaving the landlord for example, and a small supply of smaller properties was always available although these were not always attractive to tenants, and was not sufficient for everyone to downsize. Mutual exchange policies were in place across each registered provider.
- Concerns were raised in relation to the increasing cost of fuel and the impact this could be having on clients especially as the winter months had not yet passed. Members heard that there were improvement schemes in operation upgrading insulation on properties. Where properties had been upgraded in the Parkfield area there had been a reduction in the cost of fuel. Vela Group was also investigating the possibility of a lower tariffed fuel scheme for clients.
- Representatives informed the Committee that data was collated which detailed ages of dependent children within properties. Of those children who were due to reach milestones in age, clients were given notice well in advance of any changes which may affect them financially as a result of this.
Members noted that destabilising a household due to the impact of welfare reform could lead to increased pressure on children's services, and ideally it may be more appropriate to adopt a 'support the home' approach, to keep a family together in their current accommodation.
- The representative from Endeavour Housing highlighted to the Committee that staff were witnessing increased levels of mental health issues where there was poverty. Staff, who were providing home visits, were in some cases experiencing tough situations. It was suggested that the wellbeing and safeguarding of those staff also had to be taken into consideration. The Head of Housing from Stockton Borough Council explained that the service Tees Time to Talk' provided therapists for people suffering mental illness who were suffering directly from debt related issues.
- Members discussed the non-payment of rent and the policy surrounding eviction. The Head of Housing Services for Tristar Homes explained that although preventing homelessness was a main priority, through advice and intervention through the homeless prevention protocols, eviction would be the ultimate action but always as a last resort. Those who were evicted would be advised to seek help from the homeless team at Stockton Borough Council. The Housing Options Manager informed the Committee, that where a Registered Provider sought possession and the only cause was the benefit cap or under-occupancy charge, Stockton Borough Council had the responsibility to defend the client. Any tenants that did become unintentionally homeless would become the responsibility of the local authority. It was recognised that registered providers would be unable to financially support tenants who could not pay over the longer term.
-The Committee went on to ask how long the Tristar LDHP would last and was there scope for it to continue into the next financial year. The Head of Housing Services for Tristar Homes explained that the fund had a further 6 months to run, however a range of options were being considered which included the extension of the LDHP.
- Members asked officers if they had gathered any evidence to show, that, where clients were facing financial difficulty and paying their rent, were there areas which weren't being fulfilled financially? In addition had officers witnessed clients signing up to high interest loans to help make ends meet? A representative of Endeavour Housing Association informed the Committee that there was currently a research project, Real Life Reform', which was still in its infancy however early findings highlighted that 8 out of 10 clients were in debt and 65% had less than £10 at the end of the week. Members requested to receive a copy of the research when completed along with a breakdown by ward of those clients who were facing financial deficit.
-Members asked what the practicality of offering rooms to rent in larger houses would be. Officers explained that shared tenancies did exist and there was advice available, however it did create a whole host of issues in relation to safeguarding and tenant relationships. Shared tenancies consisting of two people were more realistic than three or more. Registered providers were not preventing tenants from taking lodgers frrom taking lodgers, where appropriate.
- The Head of Housing informed Members that there was an expectancy of further sanctions to come for clients of Job Centre Plus who were not meeting their obligations when seeking work. This could possibly hit those who were less willing to show commitment to finding work which could result in benefits being stopped; however it was noted that it appeared that sanctions were affecting some of the more vulnerable groups, and could be punitive for relatively minor transgressions.
Representatives of Endeavour Housing and the Fabrick Group highlighted that there were clients who proved more difficult to help than others and who were reluctant to change their current habits. When income and expenditure analysis was done with some clients, it seemed priorities were misplaced.
The Welfare Reform monitoring framework Quarter 1 did not show any immediate trends, hwoever it was expected that future reports would be more informative, and it was expected that the winter period would have significant impact on data, for example, the effect of fuel costs.