To consider the draft Cumbria Choice Based Lettings Allocations Policy Review.
Note - Councillors John Holmes and Susanne Long declared non-pecuniary interests in this item of business by virtue of being Directors on the Board of South Lakes Housing, and Councillor Suzie Pye, for the purpose of transparency explained that she was a tenant of South Lakes Housing and had been through the Choice Based Lettings process. They remained connected to the meeting and took part in the discussion and voting on the item.
In the absence of Councillor Jonathan Brook, Deputy Leader and Housing and Innovation Portfolio Holder, Councillor Philip Dixon, Customer and Commercial Services and People presented the report. The report explained that approval of the Cumbria Choice Based Lettings Allocations Policy, operation of which had begun in May 2011, would ensure that there was greater clarity for households in South Lakeland who were currently registered for social housing or who might register in the future. The proposed Policy would help to ensure that there was a consistent and fair approach amongst registered providers with regard to letting homes in South Lakeland to meet the greatest housing needs. The revisions would meet legislative changes relating to the Homelessness Reduction Act 2017 and resultant Statutory Guidance. It was expected that the proposed changes would simplify the operation of the policy to the benefit of all who use it and to customers.
Attention was drawn within the report to the fact that this was a common Allocations Policy, the Cumbria Choice Based Lettings being a partnership comprising the six housing authorities in Cumbria and eight housing associations. All partners had to seek approval from their respective organisations to enable the revised Policy to be published by September.
Details of the extensive consultation carried out were provided within the report, the outcome of which had been considered by an Overview and Scrutiny Working Group on 6 July and then by the full Overview and Scrutiny Committee on 17 July 2020. Details of the questions raised at the meeting of the Overview and Scrutiny Committee, together with responses, had been circulated to Members prior to the meeting. The comments made by the Overview and Scrutiny Committee had also been forwarded to the Cumbria Choice Based Lettings Board. Cabinet, on 22 July 2020, had recommended the Policy to Council for approval.
Councillor Dixon, in presenting the report, expressed thanks to the Principal Specialist (People) for her work in preparing the document. Councillor Dixon drew attention to the increase in numbers of people on the Housing Waiting List which last year had risen from about 3,400 households in the previous year to 3,900 this year – virtually 4,000 households at the mercy of private landlords and the whim of market forces. He made reference to the Right to Buy scheme and to the failure of governments of all persuasions to provide Council housing in recent years. South Lakeland District Council was committed to carry on working with partners to see a continued increase in socially rented housing and a decrease over the next few years in numbers on the Waiting List and to support the most weak and vulnerable. Councillor Dixon read out and moved the recommendations contained within the report and was seconded by Councillor Dyan Jones, Climate Emergency and Localism Portfolio Holder.
Referring to Councillor Dixon’s comments, Councillor Ben Berry suggested that not all private landlords were necessarily evil people. He said that it had been seen across history how one of the first things a communist government did was to execute landlords and that this was not an unpopular idea with far left of this country and the USA. Councillor Berry said that every time one logged onto Twitter posts could be seen about landlords. He wished to point out, though, that there were some good people who provided a decent standard of service. Councillor Berry then asked a question regarding local connection and those applicants with former arrears or debts.
In response to queries, the Principal Specialist (People) explained that there were some changes proposed with regard to the local connection criteria, however, that these were not dissimilar to those set out in South Lakeland District Council’s own Local Connection Policy. There were various ways that an applicant could have a local connection, usually through living or working within the locality, as well as a number of other reasons, for example, through close family ties to people living in the area. In terms of registered provider homes, many were given by Section 106 Agreement, which took precedence over the Cumbria Choice local connection criteria. There was, however, some flexibility in terms of employment, for example the right to move criteria, which allowed people to move into the locality from outside by reasons of employment. In addition, there could be exceptional circumstances as to why people may need to live in a particular locality. With regard to where an applicant had current or former social housing rent arrears and concerns raised in relation to the increase on financial pressures during this current time, the Principal Specialist (People) explained that there was a sliding criteria which had come from consultation and a joint response from the Citizens’ Advice Bureaux across Cumbria. She explained that there were many tenants in receipt of housing benefit and suggested that to actually reach a debt of over £500 it was likely that a full rent payment was being made. She pointed out that there would be flexibility, with circumstances being taken into account and consideration given to how to rectify the situation in order to enable those people to bid. In a homelessness situation, however, the local authority’s housing options team would assist to ensure that this was prevented.
Reference was made to the Government’s ban in March 2020 on evictions and strong concern raised with regard to the fact that this prohibition was due to end the following month and with regard to the potential repercussions. The importance of the Council’s continued work with South Lakes Housing on delivering affordable homes was stressed.
Clarification was sought on the change to policy in relation to the Equality Act 2010, and the Principal Specialist (People) explained that an equality impact assessment had been undertaken, with changes to syntax having been made throughout the document. The impact of changes had been classed as high due to a significant number of customers using Cumbria Choice being classed as vulnerable. Changes had been made to the Policy, but in terms of the impact of those changes, these were set out in Appendix 6 of the document, which included more detail on the various impacts and on the mitigations to these impacts.
Attention was drawn to the fact that the figure of 4,000 people on the Waiting List was equivalent to 7,952 people waiting to be housed, demonstrating the correctness of the Council’s target for 1,000 affordable homes to rent by 2025 and the need for developers to adhere to the target of 35% affordable homes on each development. Members were encourage to visit sites such as Fir Tree Rise, Jubilee Close and Nobles Rest to see the wonderful community housing that had been developed in recent years.
Councillor Giles Archibald, during discussion, asked Councillor Berry to retract or correct his recollection regarding Councillor Berry’s earlier inflammatory and irresponsible language regarding the far left wanting to execute landlords. Councillor Berry explained that he had personally witnessed members of the far left say that they wanted to murder landlords in this day and age and celebrating China having done that in the revolution there. In response to a query from the Chairman, Councillor Berry confirmed that he was purely reporting what he had heard and that he was clearly against that kind of rationale. He had, he explained, seen this type of talk online and said that it was a real thing. Councillor Archibald felt that the inference had been that there was an element of the political classes in Britain that held that point of view. He wanted to make it clear that there was no place in British politics for this and that there was no accusation being levelled against any section of the British political class. Councillor Berry said that this was clearly a view held by people and one that both himself and Councillor Archibald disagreed with, but a view that was held by far left activists. Councillor Archibald felt that to ascribe those comments to the far left was irresponsible and that the remarks were not worthy of councillors in this Council. Councillor Matt Severn raised a Point of Order, suggesting that the remark regarding execution of landlords was irrelevant to this important debate on the Cumbria Choice Based Lettings Allocation Policy and far below the conducted expected of a Member of the Authority. The Legal, Governance and Democracy Lead Specialist (Monitoring Officer), however, explained that a Point of Order should refer to a breach of the Constitution’s Rules of Procedure and that Councillor Severn was actually providing an opinion on what had been said. With regard to the comments made by Councillor Berry, the Legal, Governance and Democracy Lead Specialist (Monitoring Officer) believed that he had been repeating something which had been seen on Social Media. A little later in the discussion on this item, Councillor Webster suggested that those people being referred to by Councillor Archibald and Berry as far left were, in fact, anarchists, and he said that he felt insulted at the reference to far left. Councillor Archibald, as a point of information, said that his comments had been made purely in response to Councillor Berry’s statement.
Discussion continued, and Members were pleased to see the Council taking the increases in numbers on the Waiting List so seriously, as well as the support being provided during the Covid-19 crisis, which it was hoped would continue during the strategic renewal phase and into the future. Also raised was a plea to private landlords for long term lets for families. In addition, the need was raised for flexibility and discretion for people from the borders in the south of the district such as Kirkby Lonsdale, Burton, Beetham and Arnside, who may work in the Lancaster area. It was felt that there was a need for flexibility and discretion regarding their applications for housing in order to assist in maintaining sustainable communities. The hope that all houses built in the future were fit for purpose was stressed, as well as the need to hold the Government to account and to ensure its support for authorities to provide good housing. It was further suggested that the whole social housing system required addressing.
In response to a further query, the Principal Specialist (People) provided a breakdown of figures and household make-up as regards the numbers on the Housing Waiting List. She reported that 46% related to single applicants, 16% to couples without children and 38% to families with children, representing approximately 7,592 people in total. She further explained that the figure of 4,000 related to one application per household.
Councillor Dixon thanked Members for the enthusiastic debate which, he believed, demonstrated the depth of feeling regarding the housing situation.
The Legal, Governance and Democracy Lead Specialist (Monitoring Officer) sought consent from Members for the comments raised by the Overview and Scrutiny Committee to be passed on to the Cumbria Choice Based Lettings Board, together with the questions and answers from that meeting. Members indicated that this was acceptable.
The Chairman asked the meeting if the motion was agreed. There being no dissent, it was
RESOLVED – That
(1) the draft Cumbria Choice Based Lettings Allocations be approved; and
(2) authority be delegated to the Director of Customer and Commercial Services, in consultation with the Housing and Innovation Portfolio Holder, to approve any minor changes arising from the approval process of other partners.
Note – The meeting adjourned for a health break at 8.25 p.m. and reconvened at 8.35 p.m., when the Legal, Governance and Democracy Lead Specialist (Monitoring Officer) carried out a roll call, during which the same Members who had previously joined the meeting confirmed that they were present, with the exception of Councillor Shirley-Anne Wilson.