Tuesday, 25 January 2011

Coalition Commitment contrasts with Labour opportunism on Council Housing

This evening the Council debated the Housing Revenue Account - Financial Plan 2011/12. I proposed this as Lead Member for Housing, expecting it to be fully supported by Members across the Council. I had not bargained for the political opportunism of the Reading Labour Party.

Labour councillors are clearly settling into their role as an ineffective opposition and sadly they completely failed to represent the interests of local Council tenants effectively.

A couple of weeks ago when this matter came to Cabinet I blogged about the thinking behind our proposal to increase rent  by 4.9%  and introduce a service charge for building cleaning and increase in landlord lighting charge of 82p per week.

Although I deeply regret the need to increase charges we are committed to continuing to invest in Council Housing and thanks to the finance regime we have inherited unreformed from Labour we have very little room at the moment when it comes to rent setting.

We have done our best to keep rent and service charge increases as low as possible, whilst ensuring we continue to improve local Council housing stock .Tenants who pay rent are also set to benefit from the proposed Council Tax freeze - due to be agreed next month.

I pointed out that in coming up with this proposal we had actively consulted with Reading Federation of Tenants and Residents Associations and they were fully supportive of our proposals.

So I could not believe my ears this evening when Labour councillors queued up to attack the proposals and ultimately vote them down.

Labour raised concerns in the meeting about the increased landlord lighting charge. This was news to me. When Labour councillors had the opportunity to comment on the proposals or raise concerns with me directly they completely failed to do so:
  • They failed to raise these issues with me directly in my role as Lead Member.
  • They didn't raise concerns when charges were discussed in detail with RFTRA at the beginning of the year, 
  • They didn't raise concerns publicly when the proposals were agreed by Cabinet.
This is a complete u-turn on Labour's previous position on service charges.Which leads me to the conclusion that their recent opposition is entirely motivated by a desire to score cheap political points at the expense of tenants. This does Council tenants a disservice and once again it begs the question what would Labour do to fund Council housing? To which there was no adequate answer.

A reminder: Labour councillors originally took the decision to introduce service charges in 2006. This fact is well-documented, and yet you rarely here a Labour councillor admit it.

After taking the decision in 2006 Labour then delayed implementing charges for many years for fairly obviously for political reasons although they had planned to implement them around the time they lost office.

Labour expressed concerns in the meeting about the impact of service charges on tenants not in receipt of benefits. I found this deeply ironic given I had raised concerns about this over a year ago in my role as Chair of Housing Scrutiny when Labour first planned to introduce charges.

I implemented a full review of service charges and insisted on this being written into the Coalition Agreement. The findings of this review have been published and are available for all to see.

In the meeting I expressed regret about the byzantine housing finance system we inherited from Labour whereby rent from Reading Borough Council Council tenants is diverted to Whitehall.

This year alone we will be paying out over £7 million pounds in negative subsidy to the Treasury. This is money that will not be spent on improving Council housing stock or building new Council homes.

Labour councillors complained that housing finance was being reformed too slowly by national government - How ironic! I pointed out that after 13 years of promises from Labour about reform it was the Coalition Government which would be delivering on self-financing of Council housing - next year.

In the meeting I was pleased lay to rest the misinformation that Reading Labour Party has been recently been promulgating via inaccurate press releases on Council housing tenancies in particular and to be able reaffirm our commitment to providing lifetime tenancies for existing and future tenants.

Yet again I was forced to explain to Labour councillors what localism means i.e. councils in consultation with residents decide local policies - not government! We will shortly be developing a tenancy strategy in consultation with tenants and residents - one that suits Reading not officials in Whitehall or politicians in Westminster.

Anyway, despite Labour's pointless point-scoring I am pleased to say the proposals were approved by the Conservative and Liberal Democrat groups so the planned investment in Council Housing will continue.

Anyway, for what it's worth I've attached below my speech from the meeting - hope it's of interest to some readers!
Housing - Our commitment to tenants

This report sets out the administration’s ongoing commitment to investing in and improving this Council’s housing stock both now and into the future

It outlines our commitment to get value for money for every penny of Council tax payer’s money we spend

And above all it demonstrates our commitment to our delivering excellent quality housing services to Council tenants in Reading

As I said at the June Council meeting, I will be robust in standing up for the rights of both existing Council tenants and prospective tenants to ensure they are not disadvantaged by any proposed changes to tenancies.

It is regrettable therefore that in recent months the Labour Group has sought to spread misinformation about this administration’s plans – specifically in relation to tenancies for political reasons.

So I would like to use this opportunity to reassure tenants and place on our record our commitment to continuing to offer lifetime tenancies for those who need them and have no plans to introduce fixed term tenancies

The proposal

Cabinet has agreed and I am recommending tonight an average rent increase of 4.9% to our tenants

I am also proposing the introduction of a new service charge for building cleaning and an increase in the landlord lighting charge

These proposals have been drawn up in consultation with Reading’s Federation of Tenants and Residents

It is with regret that I propose any rent increase or additional charges as I am aware this adds to the costs a small but significant proportion of our tenants have to bear in these challenging times,

Review of Service Charges
It is for this reason I commissioned a review of the impact of service charges on working tenants – the first of its kind and further evidence of this administration’s commitment to supporting the vulnerable

The review also investigated the quality of building cleaning services and value for money – both areas which were neglected by the previous Labour administration

Thanks to the byzantine housing finance system we have inherited this year’s rent rise is unavoidable. It it is essential that this Council is able to continue to improve our own stock

Thankfully By 2012 we will be moving to a new self-financing system
 For the first time Reading Borough Council tenants rent will be spent locally, not sent back to the Treasury

In this year alone that figure amounts to over £7 million pounds

Thanks to reforms campaigned for by Liberal Democrats on this Council

Promised by the previous Labour government,

And delivered by the Liberal Democrat- Conservative Coalition Government

In these tough times this Council is committed to investing in improving Council housing

Over the next year £10million of public money will be invested by this Council on repairs and maintenance

Over 99% of local Council homes now meet Decent Homes standards and over the next year £1.25m will be spent on replacing kitchens and bathrooms across the borough

To ensure our tenants are warm, safe and secure we will be spending £250,000 on a wide range of things including communal heating systems, door entry systems fire alarms and fire extinguishers

We are setting aside £800,000 in next year's budget to improve brickwork, windows and doors, roofs, guttering and vent pipes,

£300,000 will be spent by this Council on rewiring homes, and £600,000 earmarked for boilers and heating repairs.

Our commitment to tenants

This administration is committed to doing more to support tenants

For example, we are helping Council tenants cut their energy bills by almost doubling the amount of the money being spent on insulation setting targets - higher than national decent homes standards dictate

We will continue to provide dedicated housing, welfare benefits and debt service

We are improving the service tenants receive on repairs – with 7 out of 10 calls now ‘right first time’

We are also committed to doing more to improve the quality of local neighbourhoods and reduce anti-social behaviour

We will be investing £400,000 across the Borough to improve many estate area

We are merging anti-social behaviour teams and co-locating them at Thames Valley Police station to improve the local response to nuisance

I hope all councillors will support this proposal.

1 comment:

  1. Oh dear. Reading is having a hard time with the council at the moment.