Monday, 8 February 2010

Campaigning for a fair deal for Council tenants

It may not have generated many headlines but the Labour administration's decision to put the rent up on Reading Borough Council properties will hit many Council tenants - namely those who are not in receipt of benefits and who account around 30% of all RBC tenants (there are around 7,300 Council tenants in total).

As Chair of the Housing Scrutiny Panel in Reading I been actively monitoring the impact on the recession on residents in Reading over the past year to ensure people who needed help were getting it from the Council, and a couple of sad things this study revealed was the increase over the past year of number of people accessing RBC debt services, and claiming financial support to help them meet their housing costs.

As I said in a Council meeting when the issue of the proposed rent increase was debated a few weeks ago - it is with a heavy heart that as a political Party we, the Lib Dems, lend our support to plans to increase charges for some of Reading's poorest families many of them just living above or on the poverty line.

But thanks to the way that successive Conservative and Labour governments have messed up housing finance RBC is left between a rock and a hard place when it comes to securing the future of council-owned housing stock. The Council is forced to charge tenants more because government keeps taking money away from councils like Reading to spend elsewhere.

We do not and should not point the finger of blame at Council officers who are struggle to balance the books in the Council's housing department: the failure to reform our arcane system of housing finance is a failure of this Labour government over a period of years.

The same Labour government which has abandoned its commitment to fairness and demonstrated time and time again through its own policies that is is not on the side of the poorest, including Council tenants.

As Nick Clegg has said repeatedly: the only Party that is genuinely committed to fairness for all is the Liberal Democrats.

The way council housing is currently funded is unfair on councils but more importantly it's unfair on council tenants. The way that council housing finance is centrally controlled by government makes it impossible for councils to have any real power or autonomy over their own spending and by extension limits this limits power they have to set rents and manage their own housing stock.

Alongside my Lib Dem colleagues on Reading Borough Council, as housing spokesperson I have campaigned for many years for an end to the system of so-called 'negative subsidy' - an unfair tax on Council tenants.

The sad fact of the matter is that were it not for the millions of pounds worth of rent RBC is forced to pay back to the Treasury every year there would be no need for the Council to increase the rent.

The Lib Dems would like to see the cash raised by local councils through rent spent on improving council housing stock in local areas and on building more new council houses - not subsidising government spending elsewhere.

This time last year we won backing from Labour and Tory councillors in Reading for our campaign for action to reform our rotten council housing finance system.

And nationally reform is on its way, apparently, but the government's 'change of heart' will not bring change soon enough for tenants here in Reading or anywhere else. A consultation was launched by Labour nationally but nothing will happen this side of the General Election or this financial year. So the rent has gone up.

Service Charges

Problems for tenants do not end with rent increases. Thanks to the way Labour has structured finance nationally RBC has been forced to start charging tenants extra for services they used to receive as part of their rent.

I succeeded in getting officers to delay plans to introduce charges after the Labour administration got itself into a bit of muddle just before Christmas in a botched consultation. The new charges for lighting in communal areas are set to come in in April.

Several tenants contacted me recently angry about Labour's charging plans. One tenant wrote:

"It is clear to me that these charges represent just another tax on the hardworking families that the Labour government - and Labour-dominated Reading Borough Council claim they want to help."

A report going to Cabinet next week reveals 55 tenants have written to RBC saying they oppose the plans to vary tenancies to allow Labour to introduce service charges.

Higher rent and service charges will make life even more difficult for tenants who are in arrears. RBC plans to send out leaflets with all the rent increase letters to encourage tenants to "contact the rent service if they experience any problems paying their rent."

I challenged the Labour Lead Member for Housing, Cllr Deborah Edwards, at the last full Council meeting about the way the Labour-administration treats tenants who fall behind with rent payments.

Does threatening tenants who fail to pay their rent on time constitute support, I asked. I quoted from an incredibly crass article which featured in the Council Tax Payer funded December edition of Housing News entitled "Rent comes first: Don't be Ho, Ho, Homeless this Christmas"

Cllr Edwards failed to apologise publicly to tenants for the article despite my requests for her to do so, choosing instead to attack those tenants who contacted me who were deeply offended by the article for being "thin-skinned".

Is this what people expected when they voted Labour all those years ago? On seeing the article one tenant commented to me:

"This is the sort of thing you might expect from a Tory Council, not a Labour one!

But as Sarah Teather, Lib Dem Housing Spokesperson pointed out in her speech at our Party's Federal Conference last year the Conservatives have no plans to do things differently if they form the next government:

"Blue-red, red-blue, Thatcher, Major, Blair, Brown what’s the difference?

That’s why the Tories won’t change any Labour policies – because they’re all Tory policies in the first place."

But it's not all doom and gloom. I'm really pleased to see the Labour-administration have pledged the continuation and extension of the so-called Decent Neighbourhoods Fund in Reading over the next financial year. Investment in the infrastructure of housing estates in Reading is something I have actively championed and campaigned for over a period of years.

To the frustration of tenants and residents, Labour in Reading have taken their eye off the ball and allowed estates to become rundown and neglected in their headlong rush to chase 'Decent Homes' targets. Decent homes are important but so are our neighbourhoods: people want to live in clean and safe areas - and I think they have a right to expect that their Council will work to keep them that way.

I have seen the tangible benefits that investment in estate areas can bring communities on an estate in my own ward - Hexham Road. As PPC for Reading West I will campaign for estates across West Reading and West Berkshire to benefit from the same investment, and the same improved quality of life for the benefit of residents who live on them.

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