Uttlesford’s social housing set for massive �16.3 million cash boost

AN “unprecedented” amount of money is to be spent on revamping social housing in Uttlesford under one of the most significant overhauls of the system in decades.

Government proposals to change the way local authorities manage their housing stock mean �16.3million could be pumped into new housing projects over the next five years – �2.7m within the first year.

It is good news, not only for the council’s existing tenants – who could see an improvement to their properties – but also those on the 1,128-strong waiting list.

“This is a really positive thing and a tremendous opportunity to invest an unprecedented amount of money into continuing to improve the council’s housing stock,” said portfolio holder for housing, Councillor Julie Redfern.

“I am really keen that we do as much as we can to build more affordable housing for people, and this is a great chance for us to make a difference.

“The housing revenue account will be run much more like a business, which I think is a good thing for tenants and the district as a whole.”

However, the plans would not come without a price. The district council would be saddled with �88.7m of historic housing debt by effectively buying itself out of the old system with one substantial upfront payment, which would be funded by borrowing.

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Officers have put together a 30-year business plan to pay off the debt from year six onwards, freeing up cash to spend on addressing the current housing shortage.

The interest on loans would be significantly lower than the amount paid in negative subsidy – a system Cllr Redfern said was “massively unfair”.

Government plans to abolish the existing housing subsidy system in favour of a self financing reform of the Housing Revenue Account (HRA) are to take effect from April. It means local authorities will keep all revenue from rents and sales of their properties rather than paying them to Whitehall for redistribution across the country.

Under the current system, Uttlesford paid more than 40 per cent of rent collected from council tenants to the Government which led to a negative housing subsidy of about �5.2m in 2011/12 – surplus which was redistributed to other local authorities with more need.

Chairman of Uttlesford Tenants’ Forum, Sam Sproul, believes the new system is fairer.

“I’d rather have this new system than pay �5m-plus to the Government from our rents. It means we can make our own choices and that is an exciting situation for members of the council and the forum to be in,” he told the Reporter. “It will allow the council to build new houses and look at modernising properties that are currently empty.”

It’s not all good news for council tenants. As part of the new council housing proposals, the Tenants Forum and Housing Board agreed an average weekly rent increase of 7.7 per cent back in November. It means on average tenants for the council’s 2,853 houses will have to pay �6.39 more per week – an increase from �82.71 to �89.15. Individual rent increases range from between 6.3 per cent and 9.5 per cent.

Sam Sproul said: “We accept the increase to match up with Government figures. It is better to have a small increase rather than a huge hike.

“This is absolutely going to affect people who live in council houses. But the council has been told to raise rents by Government to help pay off the debt and we don’t see any other option.”

The business plan will need to be agreed by full council on February 23.

? DO you agree with the council’s plans to spread debt across 30 years in order to improve social housing now? E-mail sam.tonkin@archant.co.uk