The Executive Member for Neighbourhoods submitted a report that gave Overview and Scrutiny Members sight of the first draft of the Strategic Priority 1 action plan and work carried out by Officers in consultation with various partners on potential opportunities for providing more affordable homes with lower rents.
The Executive Member for Neighbourhoods said that the strategic action plan provided the context for the important work to enable, where at all possible, more homes with social rents to come forward. Members were referred to appendix two for a detailed discussion of ten potential opportunities for this to occur. The Executive Member said that some 75% of existing affordable homes for rent that were re-let in East Herts during 2021/22 had social rents rather than affordable rents.
The Executive Member for Neighbourhoods said that the independent study conducted out by the Housing Quality Network in 2020, along with further analysis carried out by Officers, both showed the benefits of greater numbers of homes with social rents. He thanked Officers for their efforts in exploring this subject and said that he was committed to exploring all options for providing more homes for social rent.
Councillor Wilson said that if there was an increase in the amount of social housing compared to other types of affordable housing, there should then be fewer cases of homelessness. He asked about the relationship between the availability of social housing and the level of homelessness.
The Executive Member for Neighbourhoods said that the causes of homelessness were numerous and complex and there was no widely recognised relationship between the availability of social housing at whatever rent level and the level of homelessness. He said that it was worth noting that rent arrears typically accounts for less than 1 in 5 cases of homelessness in East Herts. Members were advised of the more frequent reasons including the private landlord needing a property back or friends and family no longer being able to accommodate a household.
CouncillorGoldspink asked how social rent could be set at 50% of local market rent if market rent did not have a bearing on social rent. The Executive Member for Neighbourhoods said that social rents were set based on a nationally defined formulae that did not factor in market rent. The Head of Housing and Health said that there were two regimes for setting rents and he explained these regimes for Members.
Councillor Kemp asked if Members could have more background information about the 75% relets at social rent on the basis of whether people were moving house and keeping social rent levels or were Housing Associations voluntarily setting social rent.
Councillor Kemp asked that, in relation to the people on housing benefit, was there a way that the Council could set rents at affordable levels if the Government was covering the cost of their rent to maximise income.
Councillor Kemp asked if there were any opportunities to allow tenants who paid their rent on time and were good tenants to be transferred from affordable rent to social rent. The Executive Member for Neighbourhoods said that it was not possible for the Council to do any of those things. He explained that rent levels were attached to properties and not tenants and the tenant did not take an agreement about social rent with them wherever they go.
The Executive Member said that there were rules in place against Councils charging different rents for those on housing benefit and for those who were not. He explained why these rules were in place.
The Executive Member said that the Council could not reward tenants of good standing by transferring them to social rent from affordable rent as rents were attached to properties and not tenants and there was no mechanism for amending rents in this way.
Councillor Wilson asked if there was a calculation that could be done to see if providing rent at social level had an impact on other council services. He asked if further consideration had been given to building council houses and were there any examples of other councils who had gone from having no council houses to building their own stock.
The Executive Member for Neighbourhoods said that it would be hard to determine whether a tenant with a lower rent would choose voluntarily to prioritise expenditure on council services or other competing demands. He said that the cost benefit analysis could not be considered as robust.
The Executive Member for Neighbourhoods referred Members to opportunities three and eight in appendix two as this discussed selling council land for social rent and new build. He said that as the council did not have the track record, the established capability nor the finances to build, manage and maintain properties, disposing of what little land the council had to a registered provider to build social rent homes would appear a more feasible way of using the Council’s assets for the purpose of developing social rent homes.
Councillor Brady asked if consideration had been given to using commercial premises and converting these into accommodation units. The Executive Member for Neighbourhoods said that the issue would be about who would convert the premises and how this would be funded. He said that if a proposal for conversion came forward from a developer or registered provider, Officers could explore opportunities one, two, five or nine with them.
Councillor Wyllie asked if it would be possible to establish a housing company to own property solely to provide social /council housing and set rent levels appropriate to local people.
The Executive Member for Neighbourhoods said that articles of the Millstream Housing Company allowed the building of affordable housing, but the company would face the same constraints as the council, namely the lack of track record or finances to build properties. He said that the Millstream business plan for 2022/23 had identified that it would not be financially viable for the company to build for private rent, and it would therefore be even less viable to build for social rent without subsidies.
Councillor Devonshire asked how the council could influence social housing providers to provide more social housing. The Executive Member for Neighbourhoods said that appendix two set out ten potential opportunities to enable more social rent housing, most of which relied upon supported registered providers to do this. He referred Members to ranking of opportunities within three broad headings as this would guide Officers’ efforts to maximise the impact of the Council’s influence.
Councillor Curtis commented on appendix two and said that options two and five should be pursued in the first instance. He asked if staircasing was an option for shared ownership properties in East Herts. The Executive Member for Neighbourhoods confirmed that this was an option.
Councillor Crystall asked if the three categories were not definitive and could be revisited over time. The Executive Member for Neighbourhoods said that the initial action plan was a live document that would be reviewed quarterly. He said that he would like to see every opportunity explored and no options were ruled out unless they were not achievable.
Councillor Curtis said that options two and five should be explored with some thought given to the prioritisation of the other options to avoid focusing on too many options and achieving none of them.
Councillor Kemp proposed and Councillor Rutland-Barsby seconded, a motion that the comments of the Overview and Scrutiny Committee be passed to the Executive Member for Neighbourhoods to take into account when finalising the documents prior to final approval.
After being put to the meeting and a vote taken, the motion was declared CARRIED.
RESOLVED – that the comments of the Overview and Scrutiny Committee be passed to the Executive Member for Neighbourhoods to take into account when finalising the documents prior to final approval.