Another Kick In The Teeth For Stoke-on-Trent City Council Tenants

On the day that Stoke-on-Trent City Council release their updated budget book, with details of which services are going to be cut as part of the cost cutting measures, it appears that they have come up with a new revenue generation scheme. A scheme that will hit some of the cities poorest residents.

From 10 February Stoke-on-Trent City Council & Kier, their housing maintenance partner are going to start using a dedicated new number for tenants to report housing repairs.

The new 0844 number will be available 24 hours a day according to a leaflet handed to Pits n Pots by a council tenant this afternoon.

I have just had this leaflet pushed through my door, telling me that from next week I need to call a 0844 number if I want to report any repairs.

I get local calls for free on my home phone, but now I will have to pay for the call. Last time I rang I was hanging on the phone for over 20 minutes while I tried to report a problem with my bathroom. If I had to pay for the call how much would that call cost me?

This latest ‘tax’ on council tenants comes under the watchful eye of Vanguard the company brought in by John van de Laarschot to oversee the restructuring & improvements to the way the council work.

0844 numbers are classed as ‘non geographic’ meaning that the cost of calling the number is the same from anywhere in the UK. Pits n Pots can’t think of many reasons why anyone outside of the 01782 area code would need to call the repairs line apart from the odd instance when a family member may be calling on behalf of a council tenant.

According to a number of companies who provide 0844 numbers, people who use an 0844 number for business can enjoy revenues of up to 4p a minute depending on the number of calls.

Using the new 0844 number council tenants who use BT as their phone provider will be forced to pay a flat rate of 5p per minute on. So a call of 10 minutes will cost 50p

Virgin Media customers, on the other hand will be forced to pay a 12.24p connection fee and then 7.13p for each minute they are on the call, making a 10 minute call 84p

Council Tenants who rely on a mobile phone on Pay As You Go contracts can expect to pay upwards of 20p on O2 and 40p on Orange a minute.

Based on figures seen by Pits n Pots Stoke-on-Trent City Council contact centre get an estimated 60,000 calls each year for repairs. With an average call taking around 10 minutes which could generate an income of over £24,000pa for the council, an income funded by some of the poorest and most vulnerable people in the city.

I checked with the Director about the number when I saw it printed on the leaflets and was assured that it is not a premium rate number but a local call number.

I was not told about any possible rake off of call charges coming back to the council as revenue, I’ll going to the Civic Centre later this afternoon and will be asking some questions about the number and the charges.

Brain also said, residents are able to use phones in any of our buildings and make calls to the contact centre including the new repairs line for free

Tenants’ Information and Fun Day

Stoke-on-Trnet City Council tenants are being invited to an Information & Fun Day between 10am & 3pm at Staffordshire University this Sunday (3 October)

It is a joint event organised by Stoke-on-Trent City Council Housing Services and Kier Stoke.

It’s a great opportunity to meet the staff and to find out more about housing services and making the most of where you live. the event is free and should be a fun day out for all the family.

Food and free parking is provided.

Destina’s Pledge To Be A Clean Air Superhero

The winner of a clean air pledge competition will be presented with a new bike by Clean Air Superheroes Travis the Time Traveller and Fiona Freeze.

Destina Mandala, 5, won the competition held by Stoke-on-Trent City Council with her pledge to “Get more exercise on bikes”. Pledges were entered at the Clean Air Superheroes exhibition in the Potteries Museum & Art Gallery and also online. When the competition closed on 17 April a total of 305 pledges had been received.

The Superhero characters have been created along with the evil “Professor Pollutant”, to highlight the issues of air pollution within the city and get people to try and find better greener ways to travel.

The campaign has been funded using money provided by DEFRA to improve the air quality in the city.

Councillor John Daniels, cabinet member for housing, environment and neighbourhood services, said: “Poor air quality affects your health, especially if you have breathing difficulties or suffer with heart trouble. It’s great that Destina, and the other participants who took part in the competition, are helping to make people aware of how they can help to improve air quality in Stoke-on-Trent.”

More information about this campaign is available online at www.stoke.gov.uk/cleanair.

The Leader Debate, Radio 4 and the Baddeley Green Working Mens Club

Tony, Anthony, Steve and I took part in a Radio 4 discussion on the final Leaders Debate. We sat in Baddeley Green Working Men Club with researchers and production staff from the news programme “World Tonight” and after the end of the debate were asked our views on how we thought the debate went.

Before the debate started the four of us were profiled. Anthony spoke of the local situation from his club in Baddeley Green. Steve who is an unemployed 18 year old described his search for work. Tony of the problems in the local manufacturing sector from his engineering company. I was interviewed in Leek from the Transition Town project in the Quaker Garden that I work in. I was asked about the failure of the traditional parties to address some of the structual problems in North Staffordshire.

We assembled in the club in good time for the debates started at 8.30pm. I took copious notes as the subject areas as they came up although they were not really used. As the subjects came up, the deficit, the banking crisis,taxation welfare reform, manufacturing sector, immigration and creating a more equal society as well as the others. I was struck by how much more combative the event was compared with the other two debates. The leaders constantly stressed their key themes. Clegg on “fairness” , Cameron ” Change” and Brown ” the fragility of the recovery”.

Both the Labour and Tory Leader zeroed in on Clegg on issues such as immigration and Europe. Brown attacked Cameron with the refrain ” Same Old Tories” especially about the need for cuts. Cameron sometimes sounded more left wing than Brown attacking Brown for sucking up to the banks and for the growing inequality in the country.

I was especially interested in the section on manufacturing. Brown wanted to create 400,000 jobs in the low carbon economy and the need to grow certain areas of the economy in bio technology. Cameron spoke about the need to grow the entrepreneurial spirit. Clegg gave a list of policy commitements on the subjects of building affordable houses and a green economy. I thought that Clegg won this part of the debate.

On the immigration where the politicians became more animated. Clegg came under fire over the amnesty question from both Cameron and Brown. Clegg responded by saying that this was a problem created by the two big parties. He made the intersting point on dealing with organised crime and the trade in people. I would however give this round to Cameron.

Affordable housing. Brown spoke of the need to get the banks starting lending again. Cameron on the need to cahnge the planning laws and the need to reward responsibility and Clegg bringing empty houses back into the market and , hurrah, the need for social housing. I would have given this to Clegg.

Welfare Reform Brown said that there sould be no life on the dole a view that was reiterated by Cameron while Clegg said that work needs to pay by increasing tax thresholds.
I would give this one to Brown.

Social mobility and education. Brown gave a folksy anecdote about his mother, Cameron a rather cheesey thank you to teachers and Clegg on the growing inequalities and stunting life chances. I would have given this to Clegg as well.

After the debate ended we were asked our opinions. I thought that Cameron had scored a hit on Brown over the 10 pence tax issue. The others gave it more clearly to Clegg although overall over the three I think Clegg won. No one rated Brown.

Mean while life went on around us. People played pool, sometimes there were shouts from the TV room were people were watching the Liverpool game and behind us the hum of converation.

However I do think that the debates have galvanised the political process and made people talking about politics and the elections which must surely be a good thing

Plan to bring long-term empty homes back into use

By Pits’n’Pots Reporter.

Stoke-on-Trent City Council’s cabinet is to consider a proposal to force the sale of long-term empty homes so they can be brought back into use.

The council would seek a court order to recover unpaid council tax debt where homes have been empty for at least six months.

The proposal is to be considered by the city council’s cabinet at its meeting on Wednesday, 9 September.

The aim is to encourage owners to either sell their properties or to let them to tenants. This would remove the blight caused by long-term empty homes and would provide additional housing for local people.

Currently the city council pursues council tax debt on empty homes by seeking a “charging order” from a court. This allows the council to recover debt when the property is sold.

The proposed new policy would allow the council to seek a further court order to force the sale of the property in order to recoup debt of more than £1,000. It would only be used when all attempts to resolve the problem have failed or where the owner could not be traced.

If granted, the order would allow the council to sell the property at auction. The debt would be recovered from the sale proceeds, with the balance paid to the county court for collection by the owner, if he or she is traced.

The system would operate initially as a trial for a year initially and is expected to deal with around 10 properties. If the scheme is successful it would be continued across the city.

Similar policies pursued in Birmingham and Manchester have successfully led to empty properties being sold and re-occupied.

John Daniels, cabinet member of housing, environment and neighbourhood services, said: “Homes left empty for years on end blight our local communities. They often look terrible and they attract vandals, drug addicts and other criminals. Empty homes are also a wasted resource at a time when we have around 9,000 people on the council house waiting list.

“This plan will be one more tool we can use to bring empty homes back into use. It will be a last resort when all other efforts to work with the owner or track them down have failed.

“Experience in other cities has shown this method can be successful and we hope it can be used here to get people living again in these problematic properties.”

Kieran Clarke, cabinet member for resources, added: “This is an innovative way to both collect unpaid council tax and to improve our neighbourhoods.”

We’re going to start building!

By Mike Rawlins

Housing Minister John Healey has announced today that funding for the building of over 11,000 new homes has been released.  The building project will help regenerate 10 of the most deprived areas in the UK and help generate around 20,000 jobs in the construction industry. Â  Mr Healey announced a major £1.7 billion cash boost for ten local authorities in six regions under the housing private finance initiative (PFI) that will allow them to deliver 4,500 new or improved council homes as well as 1,600 new affordable rented homes.

Stoke-on-Trent is one of the 10 Local Authorities which will be receiving around £1.7 billions for building new houses as part of private finance initiative “round 6″ programme. Â  It will be used to provide new and replacement homes for social rent and for open market sale in order to help regenerate the city’s largest estates. Â Ã‚ Ã‚  729 homes are expected to be built across the city’s six priority suburban estates. Provision will be mixed tenure, with just under 500 of these for affordable rent and the rest for outright sale or shared ownership.

Council Leader Ross Irving

Ross Irving

Council Leader Ross Irving, said: “This announcement is fantastic news for the people of Stoke-on-Trent. Â To be one of just 10 council areas chosen for this major investment shows the confidence the Government has in our ability to manage and deliver major housing regeneration. Â There is a clear need for new social housing in Stoke-on-Trent and this scheme will provide much needed new homes for people on the housing waiting list. Â It will also help to keep residents in their local community because of the improved housing choice that will be on offer. Â At the same time it will also help to get residents on some of our most deprived estates back into work by providing new Jobs Enterprise and Training centres and community facilities.”

The scheme is expected to involve:

  • Building 729 well designed new and replacement homes in 23 schemes, including 2, 3 and four bedroom houses, older persons, disabled housing and special needs housing.
  • Provision will be mixed tenure, with 500 homes being developed for affordable rent with the rest for outright sale or shared ownership.
  • Building new and replacement community buildings.
  • Creating Jobs Enterprise and Training centres, to help residents into work.
  • Carrying out environmental improvement schemes.
  • Building new children’s play facilities.
  • Installing enhanced street lighting and closed circuit television.

The investment will help to regenerate and secure the long-term future of Stoke-on-Trent’s social housing estates by introducing a much greater choice of housing types and by providing the new community facilities.

The estates to be targeted will be:

  • Abbey Hulton
  • Bentilee
  • Blurton
  • Chell Heath and Fegg Hayes
  • Meir
  • Norton

It will also complement an ongoing investment programme of around £500m to regenerate the estates with work including modernisation of council housing, building of new high schools and provision of new homes for older people.

It will also help to meet some of the need for social housing in the city. Currently around 9,000 people are on the housing waiting list.

The city council currently manages around 19,500 properties, but numbers have fallen because of the right to buy, which has reduced the range of property types and locations for potential tenants.  In addition affordability in the housing market has become more difficult in recent years because of house price inflation, the city’s lower than average wages and more recently the problems people have had in getting mortgages.

The council will now prepare an outline business case for approval by the government. This will provide the detail of the bid and it will include consultation with residents and other groups. This will take around a year. A procurement process would then take place to appoint a development partner. Building work is expected to begin in 2012 or 2013 and last for around five years.

Housing Support for Stoke Families

By Tony Walley.

Housing Support for struggling families during the economic downturn

Championing further plans to provide quality and affordable housing a cross Stoke-on-Trent

While families are struggling with the economic downturn, it is more vital than ever to ensure that people receive the necessary support to ensure they don’t lose their homes.

The support the Labour Government is putting in place for all families and households includes free access to key advice and negotiation of support from lenders through the Home-Owners Mortgage Support scheme (which has ensured that lenders view repossession as a last resort.)

This is the first time that any UK government has offered help to struggling homeowners in difficult times.  It is essential we do not make the same mistakes the Tories did in the 1990s.  This is why we have acted where we can to try to help people stay in their own homes.

Welcoming the new Housing Minister John Healy into his new role this week, I questioned the impact the proposed Tory cuts in housing support would have on Stoke-on-Trent.  The Minister stated that “What is clear for Stoke-on-Trent is that were the Conservatives to come into Government, the funding for housing would be cut, the funding for local councils would be cut and the people of Stoke-on-Trent, many of whom need that support from central Government, would simply not get it.”

Additionally, I remain committed to the long-term Housing Strategy for our city.  Following my extensive support for the Weston Heights estate, the housing minister, Iain Wright MP, kindly described me as “a great champion of housing in Stoke“.  Elsewhere, the £55 million Coalville Regeneration shows the enormous potential for redevelopment, and I am dedicated to pushing for further construction and redevelopment across Stoke South to ensure quality and affordable housing for all.

House Repossessions Rocket By Two-Thirds!

fsaBy Tony Walley The number of repossessed homes soared by 68% last year as the recession left many people struggling to pay their mortgage, new figures show.

A total of 46,750 properties were repossessed by lenders during the year, up from 27,900 in 2007, City watchdog the Financial Services Authority said. There was also a steep jump in the number of people who fell behind with their mortgage repayments during the final quarter of the year. Around 68,000 people moved into arrears during the period, a 13% jump compared with the previous quarter. At the end of last year, 377,000 homeowners were in arrears, 31% more than at the end of 2007. Here in Stoke on Trent, two of our city councillors have voiced concerns over people losing their homes.

Dave Conway and Mike Barnes are lobbying all interested parties to set a task force up to help vulnerable residents to keep their homes. They also want to see the proposed task group given powers to help those families who’s homes have been repossessed by banks and building societies. Mr Conway and Mr Barnes are calling for the officers in charge of housing at Stoke on Trent City Council to work with housing associations to ensure residents facing repossession are housed as quickly as possible. Both of these councillors are receiving more and more calls from desperate constituents who face having their homes repossessed. Many of these calls come from people who have recently lost their jobs due to the credit crunch. Here is a copy of a recent email sent by Mike Barnes to fellow councillors who sit on the Improving Communities Overview and Scrutiny Committee, which shows just how concerned he and Dave Conway are: 

Mike Barnes"I am extremely pleased to have been appointed by the Labour Group to be put on the Improving Communities O+S Committee. However, I write to you, in your capacity as Chair of this committee to urgently take consideration of the following formal request. Over the last few months, both you and I have had numerous conversations about our increasing concerns over housing repossessions in the City. We have also both called for immediate action to be taken within the Council to co-ordinate efforts across all housing providers within the City to try and address the problem. Yet there is little evidence that any more than the welcomed government support is being actioned at the moment. I know that many councillors are beginning to be overwhelmed by the number of constituents contacting them about repossessions, and that the housing office of the council is also started to be inundated. Many of these families and people are in extreme distress worrying about themselves and their children. I know your passion for housing, and I know that you share my view that everybody has a right to a home, to shelter, be warm and be fed. I fear that the council's current policies and provision is inadequate to currently cope with this crisis. I urge you to suspend all other non-urgent business of our committee, in order to set up an emergency Task and Finish Group with our partners. Whilst the Green Paper on housing set out some medium and long term goals, without immediate and effective action, I fear that the current crisis in housing and repossessions could turn into a disaster for families, and individuals the likes of which we have never seen before. I know that you share my concerns and with your experience in leading a reveiw we would stand the best chance of reducing the devastating effects of this housing crisis in Stoke-on-Trent." Mike Barnes

 

Dave Conway Dave Conway (pictured)  is widely recognised as the council housing guru.  He spoke to me on the phone today (Tuesday) and he told me that the number of calls from people who are facing repossession is growing day on day. He has promised to write an article for Pits’n’Pots – The Radical Press this week, about his concerns and the actions he would like to see implemented to help the electorate in the city in these most unprecedented times. Over to you……..

Committee Agrees 46 Affordable Homes, and Defers Tesco Expansion

citylogoA scheme to build 46 affordable homes in Meir has been agreed by councillors.

Stoke-on-Trent City Council’s Development Control Committee members at a meeting on Tuesday morning, approved plans to build the homes behind Lyme Road, Meir. The development will provide two bedroom homes for the elderly, three and four bedroom family homes and two bedroom flats. The scheme is near to Rowan Village, an award winning 75-apartment complex which provides round-the-clock support to elderly residents.

Committee members welcomed the plans as a way to help regenerate the area, which would uniquely provide 100 per cent affordable homes. Members said it would help increase the chances of elderly people being able to remain living near to their families and friends. Proposals were voted through four for, one against.

Councillors also deferred plans by supermarket chain Tesco to replace its existing Trent Vale store with one 76 per tescocent larger on the same site. Tesco’s plans would create a store built on stilts with an underground car park. Store floor space would increase from 5,342 square metres to 9,383 square metres, and the existing petrol station would not be replaced.

A report to the meeting recommended the proposals be refused on the grounds that the need for such a store has not been demonstrated, that it would create too much pressure on surrounding highways and would have a poor affect on the built environment.

A decision on the scheme has been deferred for three weeks, until the next committee meeting, to consider additional information submitted by the supermarket.

COUNCIL HOUSING RENT INCREASE TO BE CONSIDERED

Stoke-on-Trent City Council will consider a 5.9% increase in council housing rent for 2009 at the full city council meeting on 29 January 2009. The average national guideline rent increase will be 6.2%, and this increase will affect around 37.5% of council households who don’t receive full housing benefit.

This increase is in line with the Government’s Rent Restructuring Formula, which is designed to bring council housing rent in line with housing associations by 2025.

Councillor Joan Bell, portfolio holder for community safety, said: “The proposed rent increase is in accordance with government guidance, and it is essential that the city council comply with the national guidelines. This will allow us to maximise housing subsidy and housing benefit arrangements for the city.

“We are committed to try to make sure everyone in a council property is able to have affordable quality housing as we move into 2009. This increase is something that is happening nationwide and we are trying to ensure it is applied as fairly as possible while also meeting the targets the Government has set down.”

The rent rise will be considered by the improving communities overview and scrutiny committee on 15 January. Councillor David Conway, chair of the committee, said: “The committee will try and make sure that this increase reflects fairly on each resident within the city. The recommendations we make will hopefully be able to ensure that the city council has a complete picture of what this will mean for all council tenants.

“The rise is below the national average increase and the average rent for affordable properties in Stoke-on-Trent compares favourably with our near neighbours.

“I would like to reassure all our council tenants that we will continue to invest in housing, and even though our Decent Homes scheme ends in 2010, we have put in place a planned maintenance programme beyond that.”