This report sets out activities and progress on work areas within the Housing and Community Services Portfolio, which fall within the remit of this Committee. This information is provided in relation to the Deputy Leader and Portfolio Holder for Housing and Community Services being held to account.
Members received an overview of progress on the area within the terms of
reference of this Committee covered by Councillor Howard Doe, Deputy Leader and Portfolio Holder for Housing and Community Services, i.e.
• All Housing Services (including HRA)
• Homelessness and Housing Options
• Private sector housing
• Adult learning
• Libraries and Community Hubs
• Voluntary sector
Councillor Doe responded to Members’ questions as follows:
A Member asked how the Council was informing the public about the complexities of homelessness. Councillor Doe replied that there was a public perception that the issues of homelessness, rough sleeping and begging overlapped. Although some people felt they had to beg to survive, others saw it as a source of income. There was a need to raise public awareness that people did not generally choose to sleep rough and that there was a range of complex underlying issues associated with homelessness that needed to be tackled. Good progress was being made but public perception could not be changed overnight so messages about the best way to address the issue needed to be continually reinforced and promoted. A Homelessness Charter had been developed with partners to help ensure that all organisations were clear on the part they needed to play and avoid unnecessary duplication of services.
Another Member recalled a Safe Exit Scheme which had provided help with housing and other support to rough sleepers who agreed to come off the streets. Councillor Doe agreed to ask officers to consider whether a similar scheme could be introduced. The Member also raised concerns that a homeless review had recently been outsourced to Southwark Council. This had resulted in additional cost to the customer who was required to send documents by recorded delivery. She asked for the cost of outsourcing this service. Councillor Doe responded that it depended on whether there was the capacity for the review to be undertaken within the Council. He agreed to ask officers to look at the question of any significant extra costs arising from an external review being reimbursed to customers by the Council.
A Member observed that Medway was one of the most affordable areas to live in the south east which raised the prospect of private landlords evicting local tenants in favour of people coming from London. Councillor Doe responded that there had always been migration into Medway and there was no evidence so far that local people were being displaced on a large scale. The Council offered support and guidance to both tenants and landlords.
Responding to a comment that the 25% affordable housing target was insufficient, Councillor Doe said that some developers found the current level challenging in terms of ensuring that a housing development was financially viable. A higher level could deter them from building homes in Medway.
A Member asked what was being done to provide the right level of assistance to people with social or mental health issues so that they were suitably informed and encouraged to pay their rent directly. Councillor Doe said that the Welfare Reform Team assisted tenants facing the challenges of welfare reform and stated that he had asked officers to encourage tenants receiving Universal Credit payments to pay their rent by direct debit. It was agreed that clarification would be sought on whether the Welfare Reform Team assisted with Universal Credit appeals.
Repairs and Maintenance
Asked how the strong performance across the repairs service had been achieved, Councillor Doe explained that new ways of working, including a streamlined system and customer hotline, had resulted in repairs being carried out more quickly and therefore customer confidence in the service had increased. Also, the planned maintenance programme was having a beneficial effect and Councillor Doe praised the Head of Housing Management for helping to transform the service, working closely with Mears to create a professional service.
In response to a question about representations made to Central Government about the HRA borrowing cap, Councillor Doe responded that the Council was doing all it could to have the cap lifted because it recognised the advantages of doing so. However, he stressed that the lifting of the cap would not result in a sudden large increase in Council borrowing as this needed to remain based on sound financial planning.
A Member raised the issue of a number of tenants at Kingswear Gardens, who were concerned about the future of their homes due to lack of clarification from their housing providers, Moat and Orbit. Councillor Doe stressed the need for any redevelopment plans to include an offer to residents of suitable alternative housing. He urged Moat and Orbit to be more transparent with their tenants.
A Member praised officers for the reduction in the number of active applicants on the housing register. Councillor Doe said that this had been due to improved record management and a focus on people in most need.
A Member expressed surprise that estate inspections in 2017 had found estates to be up to standard. He said that he attended three estate inspections and had noticed a number of issues that were not being addressed including a lack of maintenance of grass and hedges to the rear of estate blocks. Councillor Doe responded that he was confident that issues were being dealt with and encouraged Members to report incidences if this was not the case, firstly to the Head of Housing Management and then to himself if the situation did not improve.
Deangate Ridge Golf Course
Asked why more had not been done to address the financial position of Deangate Ridge, Councillor Doe said that golf participation rates generally had decreased and the facility was not providing value for money. It was very unlikely that the deficit could be overcome and the willingness of Council Tax payers to fund this deficit had to be borne in mind.
A Member asked Councillor Doe for clarification on staffing levels and opening hours at Community Hubs and also for his vision of library services in 2035. Councillor Doe responded that the opening hours had been trimmed in 2017 to take account of times when demand for the service was low. Nationwide, libraries that were operating outdated models were closing. Medway’s model had been reshaped so that it was proactive, adaptable and fit for purpose. Community Hubs were one of the main areas where members of the public interacted directly with the Council and staff at the Hubs were enthusiastic and customer focused. The service would evolve so that it continued to meet the needs of neighbourhoods in 2035.
Skills for Work
In response to a question about what support was given to help young people gain basic skills for work, Councillor Doe said that the Council worked closely with Mid Kent College on the provision of these courses. It was important that young people enrolled on courses that were suitable for them.
The Committee thanked the Deputy Leader and Portfolio Holder for Housing and Community Services for his attendance.