Monday 12 March 2012

Tackling Loneliness and Housing Issues

I spoke at tonight’s Cabinet meeting to the following officer-led reports, the papers for which you can find here  First was item 14 on Reading’s Time Bank Pilot.

I welcomed Time Banking as its benefits are great.  The concept is very much the "Big Society" at work.  Time Banking has come about out of the necessity following the sad change in our society whereby roles traditionally done by family and neighbours are left empty leaving many residents isolated.  Residents offer what they can do for others and exchange it for what they need for themselves using hourly credits.

I cited Bracknell’s example where they have a directory matching people for things ranging from giving lifts, companionship going to the cinema – for walks or cycle rides, to simply listening.

Bracknell, like Reading, has a Local Exchange Training Scheme (LETS).  I was glad to hear Labour’s Lead Councillor intends to consult and work with the local LETS participants to see how the Time Banking pilot might best complement their scheme.

Lastly I asked her to ensure further review of best practice elsewhere continues; that others’ mistakes are avoided and most importantly, that outcome measures such as the level of improvement/benefits to participants’ quality of life alongside cost analysis are defined and assessed.

Agenda item 15 had three sub-reports all falling under broadening the regulatory framework for private sector housing.  Again it is officer-led and I welcomed it as it provides more tools for bringing homes up to “Decent Homes Standard”.

Four grants were covered in item 15a, the first of which was the Flood Resilience Grant a response to the CCEA Scrutiny Panel’s recommendations back in 2008 – will provide up to £500 to means tested residents living in the flood plane.  RBC estimates 200 properties may be eligible.

I welcomed this initiative which aims to help the most needy buy manual or automatic air brick closures, door dams and dams for downstairs WC’s.  The fear of a flood, as well as the consequences of one, is not to be underestimated.  These loans will enable eligible residents to reduce their stress and worry.

The Energy Efficiency Top-Up Grant is also means tested and up to £500.  It broadens the help given to ensure loft insulation can be fitted by providing someone to clear necessary space by temporarily moving stored obstacles to create or enlarge a loft opening.  Afterwards the fitter would also replace the stored possessions.

Another two tools added to RBC’s portfolio (still in 15a) are the Flexible Loan Scheme and the Empty Homes Affordable Housing Project.  The first provides loans to people not eligible for grant aid for approved repairs or improvements which bring a property up to the Decent Homes Standard. The loan is secured by a charge on the property.  The second provides a loan for 5 years with a term fixed to bring the property back into use.  It can be combined with an empty homes grant.

For details on the two bids RBC has submitted for the Empty Homes Affordable Housing Project see paragraphs 4.19 to 4.26.  If successful, it is hoped 26 empty homes will be brought back into use housing 104 people at an affordable rent for a lease of between 2-5 years; and furthermore, in partnership with Radian Housing the second bid will bring back 5 larger properties which will be converted into specialist supported housing providing a lease period between 10-15 years housing 24 people.

Item 15b dealt with the introduction of Neighbourhood Improvement Zones.  I supported Cabinet’s decision to implement selective licensing in the private rented sector as roads affected where Houses in Multiple Occupation (HMOs) are rife suffer considerably.  Too many private rented properties in our town fail to meet the basic standards so it will be good for officers to be empowered.

The last of the reports, item 15c was about the implementation of an Article 4 Direction relating to HMOs.  Appendix 2 detailed surveys officers have carried out as well as the results of a questionnaire.  As I said at the meeting, I’m sure residents and councillors alike will be eager for implementation; however I supported avoiding possible litigation and therefore introducing a non-immediate Article 4 Direction to allow control on the number of HMOs in the defined area (predominatly around the University).