Housing Review (Agenda Item 7)
To see if housing policies considered by the Housing Task & Finish Group have made an impact on the housing register.
Representatives from the Housing Associations have been invited to attend to answer questions.
Stephanie Davis from Broadland Housing Association and Lynn Riddoch from Flagship Housing Association were present at the Commission’s invitation to advise Members how the Policies, which the Housing Task & Finish Group had helped to shape, were working.
The Principal Housing Officer advised that the Allocations Policy had been reviewed in line with recent legislative changes regarding serving Forces personnel. There had also been guidance issued by the Secretary of State with regard to local connection. Those issues had been incorporated in the Policy and a report was being prepared for Cabinet recommending formal adoption.
Councillor Kybird asked if the part of the Policy focussing on local applicants had been successful and the Principal Housing Officer said that it had. The requirement to have lived in Breckland for three years or to have a specific local connection (job or family) had reduced numbers on the waiting list by 15/20%.
Ms Davis said the numbers were very positive. She was proud of the fact that there were no ‘hard to let’ properties in Breckland, even the older properties and bedsits were let quickly.
Ms Riddoch who covered Thetford and Dereham agreed. Sheltered accommodation was the hardest to let and they were investigating why those customers were not on the Register and were working with the Council to address that. The changes were positive and people were being housed more quickly.
Councillor Joel asked if the local connection applied to affordable housing provided on exception sites. The Planning Manager explained that the Local Lettings Policy (LLP) restricted eligibility to within a specific locality.
The Chairman clarified that Councillor Joel was asking about a development in Old Buckenham and the desire for local people to get precedence. He asked how the Allocations and Local Lettings Policies functioned.
The Principal Housing Officer explained that the Allocations Policy applied throughout Breckland, across the whole District, whereas the LLP had geographic restrictions down to village level where there was an identified housing need.
Councillor Matthews asked what triggered the LLP and was advised that it was a combination Planning/Housing issue and the restrictions were applied at the development stage. The Deputy Planning Manager said that in simple terms the LLP applied at site level on exception schemes and was controlled at village level.
Councillor R Richmond noted that such developments could also be delivered through village Action Plans. He asked how people wishing to return to villages, to live near parents for example, could be assisted.
The Chairman thought that the answer could be in the site specifics of the Local Plan by allowing villages to build some houses. The Deputy Planning Manager agreed although he said that there were other mechanisms outside the Local Plan process such as Neighbourhood Plans.
The Leader of the Council thought there was a lack of understanding about the LLP and he said he would ask the Director of Commissioning to write a report to explain it. He would make sure that all Members saw that report. He had received complaints about outsiders getting housing but in most cases it had proved to be in private lettings over which the Council had no control. Out of eight to ten Housing Associations with property in the District the vast majority was owned by Flagship. He asked what proportion of properties they owned.
Ms Riddoch acknowledged that Flagship was the majority shareholder. She would find out the figures and supply them to the Chairman.
Councillor Rogers noted that in his Ward there was a large estate with allocated affordable housing. However, the Housing Associations had bought additional housing stock there and they could put whatever tenants they liked into those properties.
The Vice Chairman said that people wanting social housing were complaining that foreign tenants were being housed. He got frustrated because despite putting in Freedom of Information requests he had been unable to find out where new residents were coming from as the information was not collected.
Councillor Sharpe suggested that a housing needs survey should be carried out to identify housing requirements area by area.
The Principal Housing Officer said that the Housing Needs Survey had been incorporated into the Strategic Housing Market Study. That broke down current and projected need by area. The last Housing Strategy had run until the end of December 2013. Due to changes in legislation the Council was no longer required to have a Strategy but it was an important document and was likely to be retained in the same format.
He recapped that the reviewed Allocations Policy would be presented to Cabinet for formal adoption. The Tenant Strategy was still fit for purpose. Under the new Public Health Agenda funding for disabled facilities grants was now in that budget. There was continuing high demand for grants and the funding could also be used for REABLE grants. Empty homes were still high on the Team’s agenda. They were also working with Norfolk and Suffolk on a combined approach to Gypsies and Travellers.
Councillor R Richmond asked whether the Policy requiring HMOs to be licensed was successful. The Principal Housing Officer said that it was. He explained that there were a number of mandatory licences but that the Council had adopted an additional policy, mainly due to the large number of migrant workers in the District. It had taken two and a half years to get the policy in place. It required HMOs to be licensed at a cost of £375. The licence lasted for five years. That enabled the Council to ensure that reasonable standards were maintained. The Team were also working with Planning colleagues as planning permission was also required where HMOs housed six or more people.
The Chairman thanked the Principal Housing Officer for the update and then asked the Housing Association representatives some questions. He was encouraged that there were no ‘hard to let’ properties in the District but he asked if the Housing Associations were providing the properties that people wanted. There was a large demand for one and two bed properties with some families wanting to downsize. He also thought there was a demand for apartments for young single people who could not get on the housing ladder. He asked how the needs of those people were being met. The District had an ageing population and many would prefer single storey accommodation. He did not think that the right sort of housing was being provided.
Ms Davis agreed that they had identified a need for one and two bedroom properties, especially in view of the ‘bedroom’ tax. They had visited every one of their tenants affected by that change in benefits legislation and most had chosen not to downsize. In fact the majority of Broadland Housing Association’s Dereham stock was one bedroom properties. They wanted to build more of the type of properties that were required but they were not able to build due to funding restrictions. They were trying to find answers and ways to build. They did have some exception sites and were always supportive of those. The future was difficult and they looked to the Local Authority to support them as they were committed to getting it right.
Ms Riddoch said that she would take the question back and provide answers to the Chairman. She did work closely with the development team and had the opportunity to comment on building plans and on local need. She was aware that people had been affected by the spare room subsidy and they were working closely with those that needed to downsize.
The Chairman noted that the need for smaller and single storey properties did not necessarily sit well with Housing Associations’ Business Plans.
The Executive Member for Community & Environmental Services said that Members needed to be pro-active. She had reported some empty properties in her Ward and it had resulted in them being converted into one bed single storey units.
The Leader of the Council asked about disabled facilities adaptations to properties. (He declared an interest as he had a relative in such accommodation). He asked what happened to such properties when the tenant changed; did the Housing Associations keep a list of which properties had been adapted; were the adaptations ripped out? He also asked about the reluctance of the Housing Associations to re-categorize such properties from two to one bed which he assumed was due to the financial effect of having to lower the rent.
Ms Riddoch said that they did keep a database which highlighted adaptations and when the property was re-let they worked closely with colleagues in the ARP to advertise the property with its adaptations. Some of the adaptations were personal to a customer and there had been occasions when they had had to remove them. They worked closely with the Council to find suitable tenants. With regard to the re-categorisation she would ask other colleagues and get back to the Chairman with the answer.
Ms Davis agreed that they had not ‘worked smart’ with adapted properties previously but they were much better now. They had their own pot of money for adaptations and when such a property became vacant they worked down a shortlist to identify someone needing those adaptations. They also looked for mutual exchanges to ensure that the adapted properties were let to those that needed them.
Councillor R Richmond noted that it was not unusual for exception sites to come forward and he wondered how the Council could ensure that more affordable housing was delivered.
The Chairman thought it was up to the Housing Associations to work with the Housing Team to ensure delivery.
Councillor Sharpe asked if the Council could dictate the types of houses to be provided on sites where the affordable housing contribution had been reduced due to viability issues. The Chairman thought that should part of the discussions when the planning application was determined.
The Deputy Planning Manager advised that the Council set the Policy and the development proposal should include evidence of need. However, the Director of Planning & Business Manager said that it was sometimes more complicated and that the Council negotiated with the developer to get the best terms. Legal agreements usually included a claw-back clause to enable a reassessment if the market changed.
The Chairman was aware that a lot of the housing stock was old and some conventional building materials were not energy efficient. He asked the Housing Association representatives what they were doing to help residents to become warmer, drier and safer. He also asked that if a house was sold, was there any guarantee that the money would be reinvested in housing stock in the District.
Ms Riddoch would get the answers and send them to the Chairman. The Executive Member for Planning, Building & Housing noted that she held quarterly strategic meetings with Flagship at which funding was a big issue. But she did press them about such matters as sales and repairs.
Ms Davis explained that the Housing Association was a business. They reviewed their stock and if properties did not meet the required standards they did work to get them up to standard or they got rid of them. They had not disposed of anything in Breckland. With regard to energy efficiency, fuel poverty was an issue especially in older properties and they were looking at new ways of investing. In North Norfolk they had developed their first Passive House scheme. They look at what techniques and what European funding was available before considering disposal.
Councillor Gilbert was aware that four old wooden houses had been disposed of in his Ward and the site had been sold and they had never been advised where the money had gone.
The Executive Member for Planning, Building & Housing said it was very frustrating when social housing in villages was disposed of as the village had no opportunity to build another house.
The Chairman thanked the two Housing Association representatives for attending.