The report on pages 67 – 76 was presented by Mike Jones.
The Chair commented that people did not like to see bills increasing but it would not be sustainably financial to not increase rents as the Council needed to meet costs. He said that this was not always clear to tenants and that it would be difficult for some during the pandemic. He questioned how Officers would be communicating this to residents and what the alternative would be if rents were not increased. Mike Jones answered that the Council would look to reduce services as an alternative and there was very little discretionary available in the HRA. The rent reduction in past years had significant impacts on the HRA Business Plan and it had been a case of looking at what costs could be cut to maintain the existing level of service. Without a rent increase, inflation would take over the budget and a review of the costs within the HRA would be considered and certain works that were not statutory obligations could be reduced such as improving properties for residents.
The Chair sought reassurances that the service had considered the HRA in detail and that there was no significant amount of ‘waste’ where cost savings could be made without affecting services. Carol Hinvest assured that there was no ‘waste’ and that there was also not a lot of discretionary spend within the HRA. This was spent on the services needed for the Council’s tenants which was identified from the survey results. Roger Harris added that there had been 4 years of rent reduction and that the service had stripped down significant savings in that period. The Chair supported the increases which was needed and it was a moderate increase. He highlighted the importance of communicating the increases clearly to tenants in a sensitive manner.
Councillor Redsell sought more detail on parking areas and garages. Mike Jones explained that the parking areas referred to hardstanding areas and that the maintenance of these. Carol Hinvest added that there were also garage plots that people could rent and build a garage on. In regards to garages, the service would be spending within the budget and the Garage Project Officer had been identifying potential sites for housing or to turn into hardstanding parking spaces.
Councillor Abbas commented that keeping a balanced budget was the priority as well as keeping an income coming in but he felt that with the current pandemic, he would support a 0.5% increase and not the proposed 1.5% increase for rent. He also supported the garage rent increase but not service charges as residents complained that they did not receive all these services. Carol Hinvest highlighted that only 50% of residents paid the service charges and that residents could raise an enquiry if they felt that the service that they were paying for was not value for money. The Chair felt that service charges were controversial and commented that the other option would be to increase rents and wondered whether Members had other viable alternatives to put forward.
Councillor Worrall noted that 457 people had visited the portal and she asked if all 457 had completed the questionnaire. Ryan Farmer answered that 453 people had visited the portal and although he did not have the number of people who completed the questionnaire, he said that everyone was able to access the site and information there. Councillor Worrall asked that the data on the number of people who completed the questionnaire be sent to her.
Councillor Worrall went on to say that a letter had been sent out informing residents that face-to-face consultations were not taking place. She questioned why the information about the rent increases and service charges could not have been posted out in a half page letter as a way to consult residents instead. This would have ensured that all residents were able to take part in the consultation as not everyone had access to a computer. She also said that the portal was not easy to use and required people to register to use it. Carol Hinvest explained that the information would not have fitted into half a page and that there was a lot of information. She said that the portal enabled better presentation of the information which was more interactive and that she would feed the comments about the accessibility of the portal back to the Consultation Team.
The Committee agreed to suspend standing orders until 10pm.
Councillor Worrall said that the report did not highlight if residents agreed to the rent increase and that this was a decision for Cabinet, not for scrutiny. As she had been Portfolio Holder in the past, she understood how bad cuts were. She said that the Transforming Homes programme was needed as well as replacing heating systems along with other works ongoing within the service. She agreed with the 1.5% rent increase but she was not supportive of the service charges particularly the 3.90% increase for caretaking service or the 3.48% increase to the concierge service at Piggs Corner as pensioners there were having a more difficult year than usual. She also pointed out that the survey had showed that residents did not feel that service charges were value for money. She felt service charges were too expensive and had never been given a good reason to agree with these. She sought clarification on whether new builds included service charges to which Carol Hinvest confirmed that it was.
Councillor Redsell commented that where there some flats being charged service charges, some tenants were able to maintain those services themselves so service charges should looked at in a different context. She gave the example of the grounds maintenance charge from a few years ago and said that a lot of younger people were capable of cutting the grass themselves.
1.1 That the committee consider the base budget for 2021/22
1.2 That the Committee consider and comment on an increase in domestic rent of 1.50%, in line with the 30-year HRA business plan from 5 April 2021
1.3 That the Committee consider and comment on an increase in service charges to reflect the costs of running each service in line with the 30-year HRA business plan from 5 April 2021 (detailed in Tables 4 & 5)
1.4 That the Committee consider and comment on the changes to garage rents detailed in para 3.10