To consider updates from Executive Councillor for Housing: Councillor Francesca Smith.
3.2 of the Scrutiny Terms of Reference state that the Scrutiny Committee may review and scrutinise and ask questions of the Leader, lead Councillors, the Executive in relation to their portfolios.
Attached is Cllr Smith’s Full Council Portfolio Holder Report which was presented to Full Council on the 6 September. Following the publication of this Agenda the Report for December’s Ordinary Full Council will be published on the 29 November 2022 and can be accessed via that Agenda Pack.
The Chair welcomed the Executive Councillor for Housing to Community Scrutiny Committee to answer updates on her portfolio. It was acknowledged that the meeting had fallen between two full council meetings and therefore there were two portfolio updates that had been published.
Members asked questions on the following issues:-
· There are now specific teams in place who deal with damp and mould in council housing. There is also a tenant group working specifically on this project. It is very important that concerns are reported as in most cases it gets worse due to being a hidden problem! Simon Lewis accepted that there will always be issues as 20% of the housing stock is of a traditional build and this is an inherent problem in older type housing. It has also been acknowledged that the current financial crisis will encourage tenants to use alternative forms of heating over the winter, which may lead to increased condensation and other associated problems.
· Members can help with this by promoting how to report mould and damp and general housing repairs. This can all be done online via the housing repairs portal. More information can be found on the council’s website. This is also due to be updated with operating instructions on the different heating types within the SWT housing stock. This should help tenants to get the best use out of their heating systems.
· It was asked whether there was still a delay on the delivery of the Disabled Facility Grants which were delivered via Somerset Independence Plus (SIP). Simon Lewis explained that a backlog had arisen due to pressures on the service due to: SIP were the nominated organisation who were responsible for inspecting the suitability of sponsor, Homes for Ukraine properties. (This was obviously emergency work and took priority). Secondly, South Somerset had joined the partnership, which meant that any high-risk properties that were brought in from their housing stock, took priority over existing cases. Add to this the problems associated with gaining access to properties due to COVID-19, and then there was an inevitable backlog. The SIP team were now slowly catching up.
· Financial support for hosts of Homes for Ukrainians has caused significant pressure on the private sector rented housing market. Sponsorship comes to an end after 12 months by which time, the hosted families need to find their own independent accommodation. This places additional challenges on an already limited supply of rented accommodation.
· Cllr Habgood thanked Simon Lewis and his team for the work with Homes for Ukraine and asked how many families are being assisted? (Somerset is accommodating approximately 1200, with 400 being situated in the SWT area). Hubs have been set up across Somerset to provide support and assistance with such things as language classes and finding employment. Numbers are manageable at the moment but sponsorship money will eventually come to an end. This was priced at £1K per room to cover costs and a slight uplift has been added for take into account the cost of living crisis and additional expense incurred during the winter. This will place sponsors under additional financial pressure as this money comes to an end. (The £1k per room was calculated to ensure an incentive to sponsors who were effectively renting to a high risk/unknown tenant and encourage participation).
· Cllr Mansell asked if the items collected during the SWT Skip days were recycled. Simon Lewis stated that this had been tried in the past but was unsuccessful due to the need to separate the waste. Tenants don’t tend to split into the necessary recyclables, so it ends up being mixed which is not eligible for collection. If items can be recycled as part of the kerbside collections then households were encouraged to do this.
· The Council do encourage tenants to install smart meters so they can monitor their energy usage. The Centre for Sustainable Energy (CSE) has also been reporting back on private sector tenancies.
· The retrofit programme has gone out to tender. The Woolaway project has also been re-tendered due to the high level of risk within the contract and due to escalating costs for supplies. Two tenders have now been combined into one in the hope it will encourage contractors to apply.
· Cllr Habgood asked how tenants who were unable to manage their large gardens could be helped to maintain them? It was advised that Link Power were already undertaking such jobs in parts of Taunton, and they had also requested more work. Simon Lewis would follow this up.
· It was asked if the Cost-of-Living Crisis was having an effect on Right To Buy take up. James Barrah confirmed that 35 homes were sold in the last financial year, but this had slowed considerably due to the Cost of Living having an impact on incomes. The prediction is for 55 to be sold right across Somerset next year.