Agenda item

Lead Councillor Question Session

A question session with Councillor Julia McShane, the Leader of the Council & Lead Councillor for Housing. 


Councillor McShane has specific areas of responsibility as the Lead Councillor for Housing that include: Homelessness; Housing Advice; Landlord Services; and Housing Maintenance and Repairs.


The Chairperson introduced the question session with Councillor Julia McShane, the Leader of the Council and Lead Councillor for Housing.  The Committee was reminded that Councillor McShane’s specific areas of responsibility included Homelessness, Housing Advice, Landlord Services, and Housing Maintenance and Repairs.


During the ensuing discussion several points were made and clarifications offered as follows:


·            In response to a question regarding the Council’s actions to improve access to accommodation for vulnerable people, the Leader of the Council and Lead Councillor for Housing advised that the Borough had received funding from the Government Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities (DLUHC) to support the delivery of services for homeless people and rough sleepers until March 2025.  This funding would enable the Number 5 Hub, which provided short-term temporary accommodation with support for local rough sleepers, to undergo significant refurbishment works to bring the building in line with service needs.  In addition, housing pathways had been identified to support vulnerable client groups including young people and those released from prison, experiencing domestic abuse, leaving care and rough sleeping.


·            With regard to the current social housing stock repair status, the Committee was advised that, although there had been some regrettable decline in performance in this area recently, the situation was being reviewed and the Council was committed to providing a good service to its tenants who would be contacted and measures put in place to address concerns.


·            The Committee was advised that of a social housing stock of slightly over 5,000 Council owned properties, there were currently 172 homes unoccupied in a void position.  Forty of these were undergoing major repairs, twenty-nine of which were being structurally monitored.  The number of voids also reflected a rate of turnover with tenants moving out or downsizing.  The average time for turning around void properties for occupation by new tenants was 40 days.


·            The Committee was advised that concerning buy-backs of former Council owned homes previously sold to tenants, due diligence was undertaken to ascertain whether the homes in question met the profile of the type, condition and location of properties sought by the Council to meet housing needs.  The only identified issue was associated with the Council’s housing company, North Downs Housing, and the future treatment of its properties.


·            The Leader of the Council and Lead Councillor for Housing was asked how the Council’s new administration was balancing its expressed vision and plans for Guildford with the work underway to solve the Council’s financial challenges.  In response, the Leader of the Council and Lead Councillor for Housing advised that no plans had been postponed or abandoned.  However, there had been temporary pauses in some areas of major projects as part of the Financial Recovery Plan to ascertain whether there may be more cost effective ways of delivering the projects.  The top priority was to stabilise the Council’s finances, with the assistance of the Financial Review Executive Working Group, as they were an essential foundation for future delivery of projects and services.  The protection of essential public services, particularly for vulnerable and less advantaged residents, was being prioritised.  Plans to deliver new Council homes would continue utilising ring-fenced monies in the Housing Revenue Account, subject to business cases being approved by the Council.


·            The Chairperson enquired as to whether the cost of living crisis was having an impact on the number of homeless people living in Guildford in recent years.  In response, the Leader of the Council and Lead Councillor for Housing explained that, although the flow of people rough sleeping in the Borough remained stable in single figures amounting to approximately half of those sleeping on the streets prior to Covid, an increase in the number of homelessness applications to the Council had occurred.  The Committee was advised that this was a reflection of national trends witnessing an increase in the number of evictions owing to rent increases and pressure on household budgets.  Property affordability, mounting debts, and a discrepancy between market rents and low income assistance claimable from the Department of Work and Pensions to assist with housing costs, remained a barrier to some in accessing affordable housing.


·            In terms of the level of Council resources available to assist homeless people, the Leader of the Council and Lead Councillor for Housing advised that, in line with many other local authorities, the Council did not have a sufficient supply of suitable and affordable accommodation within the Borough.  It was highlighted that the provision of housing was only part of the solution to tackle homelessness as affected people often required other forms of support in order to maintain their tenancies.  The specialist Homelessness section at the Council had adopted a homelessness prevention approach which sought to support people at the earliest opportunity to remain in their existing accommodation or secure alternative accommodation.  Discretionary Housing Payment could be applied for to assist with rental shortfalls.  Local partner providers in the supported housing sector were experiencing difficulties with retaining and recruiting staff of the required calibre to assist in this area.


·            Regarding the type of partnership working pursued by the Council to address the root causes of rough sleeping in Guildford, councillors were advised that people who were regular rough sleepers often had multiple needs and required personalised support featuring a holistic and flexible multi-agency approach to enable them to develop the stability and foundation from which they could rebuild their lives.  The Council’s strategic partners in both the statutory and voluntary spheres were also struggling to meet service demands with limited resources.  This hampered people’s access to timely and appropriate support which negatively impacted on the housing options on offer.  The Council was an active participant in Surrey County Council’s Surrey Adults Matter initiative which played a valuable role in uniting and engaging agencies to identify individual and realistic solutions.  The Guildford Rough Sleeper HOST service worked in close partnership with the Council and other agencies involved in assisting individuals requiring support.  The Committee was advised that Guildford remained an attractive destination for rough sleepers with no connection with the Borough possibly due to the daytime resources that were available in the town centre provided by the voluntary sector.


·            The meeting was informed that in terms of room for improvement to address the root causes of rough sleeping through partnership working, there was a constant process of adaptation to meet the changing picture of people’s needs as far as possible.  The Council was working in partnership with DLUHC to identify trends and methods of tackling homelessness.  DLUHC had recently agreed to the Council’s proposal to re-purpose some funds to meet identified issues.  The initiatives included targeted reconnection work, counselling and art therapy, purchase of additional bed space outside the Borough, tailored training, and reflective practice for the specialist Housing Prevention team.  The Council would also be working with Guildford HOST outreach and support service together with other grant funded services in the community to implement these projects.


·            Further to a question regarding the possibility of offering support towards the maintenance of overgrown gardens and hedges within the Council’s social housing stock, the Committee was advised that charities and local groups had offered assistance in this area in the past.  It was felt that this issue could be due to elderly occupants being unable to maintain their gardens who may prefer to move to a smaller property either without a garden or a smaller outdoor space requiring less maintenance.  This factor mirrored a wider conversation occurring within the Council regarding ‘right-sizing’ as there was an awareness that there were a number of older tenants under occupying properties who may wish to move to a more appropriately sized home, freeing larger homes for families.  A possible solution to the garden maintenance issue would be referred to officers for further consideration.