Monday, August 13, 2018

Being Scrutinised at Scrunty

Recently as Cabinet member for Housing Services I was called to answer questions by the Newham Overview and Scrutiny Committee.

This is a statutory committee of Newham Councillors whose role is to hold the Councils Executive members to account and make recommendations. 

As a backbencher Councillor for the previous 8 years, I had been a member of various scrunities (some longer than others) but this was the first time I had appeared as a member of the Executive. 

The Chair asked me to first give an outline of my housing brief for the benefit of the Committee. 

I explained that the present housing structure in Newham had been drawn up by the previous administration who had intended that all Councils services should be "outsourced". The new Mayor, Rokhsana Fiaz, has put a stop to all "outsourcing" and ordered a rethink and corporate redesign.  So things will change.

My housing brief is currently in 3 parts:- 

1. Traditional Council social housing management of our stock: repairs, rents, voids, allocations, residents engagement, Anti social behaviour (ASB), fire safety, right to buy, tenancy and leasehold enforcement. The Mayor has reserved the regeneration, planning and strategic delivery portfolio.

2. Homelessness and temporary accommodation (although not rough sleepers. The published minutes need correcting slightly on this), assessment, advice, support and prevention.

3. Private sector rental licensing and enforcement, including houses of multiple occupation (HMOs), advice and support. We really want to work with and support landlords but we won’t hesitate to drive bad and criminal landlords out of Newham and into the Courts. 

There are still a few grey areas (pardon the pun) about the scope of my brief due to the fragmented nature of the current structure.

Some Key issues

Number one is fire safety in our blocks including the removal and replacement of unsafe cladding. This is costing us a huge amount of money (waking watches) and it would appear that the Government will not reimburse anything like our total costs.

Review our entire allocation policy including the suitability of the offer for homeless temporary accommodation in light of the new Mayoral priorities and also changing Government policy. We have nearly 27,00 households on our waiting list and nearly 5,000 households in temporary accommodation. I suspect due to "sofa surfers", homes with grown up children who cannot afford to find a place of their own as well as all those private sector tenants, who have to spend most of their income on rent that the real figure of those in housing need is far higher.

Reform RMS repairs: (our in house repairs maintenance service). We have a number of good staff but the repair service is currently not good enough. RMS also has a limited new build module housing capacity which could be used more to build new homes on unused areas in estates.

Reduce Homelessness: Prevention is key. We spend far less than other boroughs which may be the reason why we have such high levels of homelessness. We need to educate residents about the scale and the real reasons for the housing crisis. We need more "joined up" thinking between housing and social services on these homeless issues which might result in financial savings to the Council and a better service for the people in Newham

Anti-social behaviour (ASB): While enforcement is not the only tool it is important. Too many residents live in fear of a tiny number of violent and abusive residents.

Fragmented caretaking service: This has been hived off the control of housing management. This has made it difficult to do anything about these services, particularly those services in estates, as I have no authority to manage these services.

Tackling housing poverty by supporting residents getting advice about benefits and support into decently paid work. We need to make sure "that work pays". This will reduce evictions and homelessness.

The need for Culture change and Resident Representation: There had to be a culture change on the part of both Members and officers in the way in which they interacted with residents, if residents were to be "at the heart of everything we do". There are practically no tenant and/or resident representation in Newham and while an annual citizens assembly on housing would be a good thing, it would not be a substitute for a proper democratic and accountable TRA. While we did not want to return to the “bad old days” when in some cases a small number of tenants had dominated the Tenants’ and Residents’ Associations (TRA’s) for their own ends. We need to carry out a review of tenants’ and residents’ representative structures as soon as possible.

Private Sector Housing Licensing - Enforcement: There will be an increase in the number of housing inspections undertaken to ensure that landlords were complying with the terms and conditions of their licences. Inspections and enforcement action are key to ensuring compliance and making landlords aware that non-compliance would not be tolerated. I am not at all opposed to properly managed private rented sector accommodation and I would expect any Councillor who rents property to be an exemplary landlord.

Planned Maintenance: We need to have planned maintenance and refurbishment programmes for Council properties. They are much cheaper than carrying out emergency repairs and better for residents. The “Decent Homes” programme ended eight or nine years ago. Therefore, there was a need for a properly planned programme. A housing stock survey is about to take place which will guide this.

Housing Associations: My own casework had shown me that the management performance of a number of housing associations within the borough had been abysmal. Therefore, if housing associations wished to work in partnership with the local authority, and I welcomed partnership working, it was necessary for poorly performing housing associations to improve.
In the Q&A with Councillors afterwards

In response to a question about the high cost and poor quality of some temporary accommodation I explained long-term lease agreements with decent landlords may provide an alternative form of accommodation and would do away with the requirement to pay a expensive “nightly” rate for private sector temporary accommodation.  Landlords want long term security of income. There are now a greater number of Council inspections of such accommodation. We are also thinking of buying and leasing properties.

Regarding the adverse effects that bad landlords had on their tenants, neighbours and good landlords, I hoped to see an increase in the number of prosecutions of bad landlords and an increased number of costs orders in the Council’s favour. Also, in the case of illegal evictions, I would want to see if necessary, custodial sentences for landlords to change their behaviours.

(picture college of some of the housing visits and inspections I have undertaken in last week). 

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