I have been passionate about improving Council housing and services to Council tenants in Reading for a number of years now. I first became interested in 2005 when I began campaigning around Redlands and gradually my interest grew from ward level to Borough-wide through my role as Lib Dem Housing spokesperson (2006-10) and later Chair of Scrutiny (2008-10). So I was delighted when the Leader of the Council Andrew Cumpsty invited me to become Lead Member for Housing in May 2010 as this has given me a real opportunity to campaign even more strongly for better housing for Council tenants and residents as a whole in Reading.
The key watchwords of the local Coalition are value for money and better services for our residents. With this in mind one of the commitments we made in our local Coalition Agreement last May was to review the implementation of service charges for Council tenants to cover building cleaning and lighting services.The decision to introduce new charges in addition to rent was taken by the then Labour administration of Reading Borough Council back in 2006 as there was a need to plug a black hole in the main (council) housing revenue account. Labour delayed the introduction of these charges for years for political reasons until finally deciding to bite the bullet last year. I raised concerns about this proposal in December 2009 when I was Chair of the Housing, Health and Community Care Scrutiny Panel. Labour's plans included proposals to introduce a charge for cleaning services.
However, at that time a number of issues about the quality of building cleaning services had been raised by tenants. I was concerned as a result of these complaints that Council services were not offering tenants good value for money. In addition, I was also concerned about the potential impact that service charges could have on Council tenants who do not receive Housing Benefit.
A few months on, it is now my role as Lead Member for Housing to recommend to Cabinet and Council the level of rent increase and to grapple with the issue of service charges.I have given this issue considerable thought, consulted with officers and tenants and prepared proposals following a thorough review of service charges. This process included seeking reassurances from officers around the quality of building cleaning service and analysing potential impact on tenants who do not receive benefits. You can read the full review here.
In order to minimise the impact on working tenants I have sought to keep the average rent rise as low as possible (and less than the ceiling set by Government - the 'Guideline rent'). Before coming to a recommendation I held a consultation meeting with Reading Federation of Tenants and Residents Association and was pleased to gain their full support for the options we are proposing. Council tenants who do not receive Housing Benefit or Council Tax Benefit will also benefit from the proposed Council Tax freeze - another key pledge of the Coalition Administration of Reading Borough Council which has never been offered by Labour.
Proposing to increase rent and introduce service charges is not a decision I relish. However, the byzantine system of Council housing finance I have inherited from previous Governments means I did not have a lot of options to choose from if I want to continue to improve our stock. I have a responsibility to ensure that any rent rises are as fair as possible but also that Council housing improvements in Reading are well funded and the Housing Revenue Account is sustainable over the longer term.
It really saddens me that millions of pounds worth of tenants rent currently goes to the Treasury - something the Lib Dems locally have campaigned to change both locally and nationally. However, I am pleased that a significant proportion of rent collected will be spent on improving Council housing for tenants and I welcome the fact that the new Government has committed to reforming the system to allow councils to keep rents in future.
For any residents with concerns about paying their rent the Council offers tenants a debt advice service with information on national and local support groups, where they can discuss their financial situation. Council officers are on hand to talk to residents about managing their debt and finances to make manageable payments. Please call 0118 937 2197 for more information.
On Monday I will be setting out to Cabinet our plans to continue to invest in Council housing and estates in Reading. As well as £1.8m on day to day repairs requested by tenants, £1.25m will be spent on replacing kitchens and bathrooms, and £250,000 on communal heating systems, fire alarms and fire extinguishers, warden call system maintenance, burglar alarms and checks and repairs to door entry systems. £800,000 has been set aside in next year's budget to improve brickwork, windows and doors, roofs, guttering and vent pipes, £300,000 on rewiring homes, and £600,000 earmarked for boilers and heating repairs.
I am particularly proud of the fact that we are proposing to almost double the money being spent on insulation setting targets higher than national decent homes standards dictate. All these measures in addition to being beneficial to the environment will help tenants save money on their heating and utility bills.
These plans set out once again the committment of the administration to continue to improve Council housing and support tenants and I very much hope they will be agreed by all members of the Council.