Agenda item

Questions from Councillors

To hear questions (if any) from councillors of which due notice has been given.

Minutes:

(1)    Councillor Angela Gunning asked the Leader of the Council, Councillor Caroline Reeves, the following question:

 

“Can the Leader of the Council ensure that information on the Council's response to COVID-19 will be shared on a weekly basis with all Councillors? To date this information has been shared with Group Leaders only, and they have been expected to forward this to members of their Groups. It is not clear that this is the best means to reach all Councillors”

 

The Leader of the Council’s response was as follows:

 

“Thank you for your question Councillor Gunning. We did discuss this same question at the Group Leaders’ meeting last week and the majority were in favour of group leaders forwarding to their group so that any comments could be circulated at the same time. I currently forward these updates by email to Councillor Jackson as he has no group leader. I’m sure that Steve Benboughcan also forward them to Councillor Walsh as well as yourself if that is requested.”

 

Councillor Caroline Reeves

Leader of the Council

 

In response to a supplementary question from Councillor Gunning, in which she asked to what extent honorary aldermen and parish councils featured in the distribution of information on the Council's response to COVID-19, the Leader confirmed that the information was updated on a weekly basis on the Council’s website.

 

(2)    Councillor James Walshasked the Leader of the Council, and Lead Councillor for Housing and Development Control, Councillor Caroline Reeves, the following question:

 

“Can the Lead Councillor for Housing and Development Control describe what additional measures the Council will take to help Guildford's homeless to access accommodation when the Lock-down is finished? Guildford's hotels have been helpful in offering rooms to those in need, but obviously will not be able to continue indefinitely. What measures are being taken to provide long-term accommodation for the homeless?

 

The Leader of the Council’s response was as follows:

 

The Council and partners first met on Friday 13 March 2020 to share information and discuss arrangements for rough sleepers and people living in hostels.  We have worked with our partners to identify all known rough sleepers and emergency COVID-19 accommodation has been provided for them.  This work was started prior to the Government announcement that all rough sleepers should be accommodated.

 

The Council is taking action now as the amount and complexity of work involved in securing appropriate move-on accommodation for rough sleepers is very time consuming.

 

We have developed a housing pathway plan for each person currently in COVID-19 accommodation.  Examples of accommodation include:

 

·       shared or self-contained private rented accommodation with move-in support (e.g. furniture, food and household items) and ongoing floating support  

·       supported shared housing or hostel accommodation

·       the Number Five Hub

·       Social housing

 

Due to the limited availability of appropriate accommodation for people with higher support needs, we have had to work with the local hostels to identify people who are ready to move on and offer them accommodation.  This frees up spaces in supported housing and creates flow through the system to enable us to house people with higher needs. 

 

This is an ongoing piece of work that we are undertaking with housing partners and Surrey County Council who commission and fund Housing Related Support services.

 

We still have people presenting to our service as homeless due to non COVID-19 related matters and have to date managed to accommodate avoiding the use of B&B or hotels.  When the lockdown lifts we may face an increase in this area of work e.g. families who are under notice in the private rented sector.

 

Homeless prevention officers are working closely, including an out of hours provision, with Housing Environmental Health Officers to stop illegal evictions and ultimately homelessness happening in the first instance.

 

Councillor Caroline Reeves

Leader of the Council and Lead Councillor for Housing and Development Control

 

(3)        Councillor James Walshasked the Leader of the Council, and Lead Councillor for Housing and Development Control, Councillor Caroline Reeves, the following question:

 

“Can the Lead Councillor for Housing and Development Control describe what advice and assistance the Council will provide to private renters who may find themselves in arrears and possibly with other financial difficulties when the no-eviction period elapses?”

 

The Leader of the Council’s response was as follows:

 

We would encourage people in the private rented sector experiencing difficulties to get in touch with us at the earliest opportunity on 01483 444244.  There is a lot of help available and our experience is that people are aware of the specific COVID-19 help available.

 

The sort of advice and assistance we would give:

 

·       Check benefit entitlements are maximised

·       Affordability issues

·       Whether a referral for specialist money advice to Citizens Advice would be appropriate to determine whether previous issues had been made worse due to COVID-19

·       Negotiation with the Landlord to resolve issues

 

Social Media communications have been utilised by Housing Standards to signpost the most relevant guidance published by the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government regarding financial difficulties and paying rent during the pandemic.   

 

Councillor Caroline Reeves

Leader of the Council and Lead Councillor for Housing and Development Control

 

In response to a supplementary question the Leader confirmed that officers would be doing all they could to help people facing an uncertain situation and would keep Councillor Walsh updated as the position became clearer.

 

(4)        Councillor Angela Gunning asked the Leader of the Council, and Lead Councillor for Housing and Development Control, Councillor Caroline Reeves the following question:

 

“Would the Lead Councillor for Housing and Development Control consider setting up guidance and standards for private landlords in Guildford for a compassionate handling of rent arrears – for example a proposal for guidelines on waiving arrears? Consultations with private landlords and their tenants on their current financial situation would be an essential contribution to the formulation of guidelines.”

 

The Leader of the Council’s response was as follows:

 

“I can confirm that such guidance is issued at a national level and we understand that further guidance is due to be issued by the Government.

 

We understand the from the Select Committee report on 11 May 2020 that the Minister for Rough Sleeping and Housing (Luke Hall MP) pointed to the proposed pre-action protocol for the Property Redress Scheme as one of the primary methods of preventing evictions.  He couldnot currently give clarity on whether this would be a change to civil procedure rules, or a change to primary legislation, advising that this is being looked at. 

 

The main thrust of the pre-action protocol is the requirement for landlords and tenants to work together in a compassionate way to prevent evictions.

 

Even though lockdown has been extended to July at least, thereis currently no extension to the moratorium on evictions which is still due to cease at the end of June.  Landlords will have been issuing notices with the end of June in mind, so we will have to see whether they will be able to start court action during the extended lockdown.

 

We have also been advised that guidance will be issued to assist us post lockdown to deal with eviction from the private rented sector.

 

We have always handled the issue of rent arrears sensitively as a local authority and we feel that we should continue to tailor our approach on a case by case basis.  Anyone that we have placed with landlords, as far as we are aware, are not facing any issues specifically as a result of COVID-19.

 

There may be people, including landlords, who may feel they cannot continue to rent or rent out properties as they are unable to meet their financial responsibilities.  We always ask that those in difficulty contact us at the earliest opportunity as earlier intervention reduces complexity and increases the time we have to find a solution. 

 

The government has increased the local housing allowance to fall in line with the market rent.  However, this has not covered people who are subject to the shared housing rate. This change has helped some avoid potential rent arrears due to the shortfall between a households income and rental outgoings.   

 

The current guidance states that rent arrears and personal financial matters are to be resolved between private renters and their landlords. Reasonable payment plans should be arranged between those parties. It is envisioned that most renters will come to common sense and pragmatic resolutions. Whilst Housing Standards do not have the powers to investigate financial disputes, the team will investigate any illegal evictions that may arise from financial implications of the pandemic.

 

Councillor Caroline Reeves

Leader of the Council and Lead Councillor for Housing and Development Control

 

Councillor Gunning asked a supplementary question enquiring as to the meaning of “Housing Standards” in the Leader’s response and whether the response applied equally to Council tenants.  The Leader confirmed that she would come back to Councillor Gunning with a written response to her supplementary question.