To provide an update on the activity of the Housing Action Plan, Housing and Property Department.
a) To accept the report, noting the observations made during the meeting.
b) To request a further update to the Care Scrutiny Committee on the Housing Action Plan for next year.
The report was submitted by the Head of Housing and Property Department and she offered an update on some of the main projects of the Housing Action Plan, which was approved by the Cabinet in December 2020.
An update was provided on the progress made since the adoption of the Plan in April 2021, which included building 89 social housing and bringing 41 empty houses back into use. An overview of individual projects and fields was received, detailing the progress made and the steps being taken.
Reference was made to the challenges being faced by the Department, such as the significant increase in the number of homelessness presentations received, and an outline was given of the developments planned to address these challenges. Members' attention was drawn to the One Stop Shop project and the next stage of identifying alternative models for the operation of the unit. After gathering information and carrying out a consultation a report shall be presented on the various options.
The importance of communication and reporting on the successes of the Housing Action Plan was emphasised, adding that a page had already been set up on the Members' Intranet to present updates to members. It was added that the Department would welcome the opportunity to return to the Scrutiny Committee in future to provide a further update on the progress of the Plan. Members were given an opportunity to ask questions and offer observations.
During the discussion, the following observations were submitted by members:-
· Thanks were expressed for the detailed report and the ambitious Plan which identified and responded to the county's housing problems.
· Appreciation was expressed for the work of the Department and pride was expressed in what had been achieved to date. The members looked forward to seeing what could be achieved in future.
· It was noted that a number of houses in the Blaenau Ffestiniog area were not up to standard; however, the houses were rented out to residents as there were no better quality properties available. It was asked whether Officers within the Housing Unit continued to visit private rental properties in order to check their standard and the cost of rent as they had done in the past. It was questioned whether the Plan addressed unsuitable housing.
· It was asked how the Council worked with Rent Smart Wales. It was thought that this organisation set expected standards but that people were accepting lower quality housing due to a shortage of properties in the county.
· It was asked what the reasons were for the low number of responses received when over 300 letters were sent to the owners of empty houses across the county. Further questions were asked about when the 41 empty properties were brought back into use.
· An observation was made that many more of the empty houses grants for first time buyers were given to applicants from the Arfon area compared to applicants from the south of the county. It was asked whether there was a waiting list for Meirionnydd or a reason why people from the south of the county were not applying for these grants. It was believed that more should be done to promote these grants in the south of the county.
· It was observed that people must be facing homelessness within 56 days before being identified as being at risk of homelessness but that notices to leave were sometimes given 6 months in advance. It was asked what the department was doing to try to help these people before the 56-day period.
· Frustration was expressed in regards to contacting and receiving responses from some of the Housing Associations. It was noted that members would like to know what social housing was going to become vacant but that this information was not usually provided by the Housing Associations.
· It was stated that some members were waiting a long time to receive a response to their enquiries from the Housing Options Team and had experienced difficulties in contacting the team. It was noted that the public had also experienced this frustration and it was felt that there was a lack of communication from the team. The Head of Housing and Property Department's views were sought on the situation.
· Reference was made to the statutory imposition imposed by the Welsh Government during the pandemic period, which stated that Local Authorities should house anyone presenting as homeless and it was believed that this was challenging for the Homelessness Unit. It was asked whether this had been reflected in the graph on page 20 of the pack, and what would happen if the Government enacted this Act.
· It was felt that promoting the Housing Action Plan was important and that members had a role to play. It was suggested that members should promote the Plan through their Community and Town Councils.
· It was believed that very good progress had been made since the adoption of the Plan. It was reported that there were various encouraging figures in the report. Members wished to receive further information, i.e. where the 89 social housing had been built.
In response to the above observations and questions from members, it was noted that:-
· The old rent setting system no longer existed. It was noted that there were approximately 9,000 private rented housing in Gwynedd and that only a small number of these landlords were causing problems. The Head of the Housing and Property Department reported that a team of officers within the service were responsible for auditing housing standards. Members were asked to contact the service if they were aware of any problematic housing. It was added that the team was available to undertake inspections at any time.
· The Housing Department worked very closely with Rent Smart Wales. It was noted that 90% of houses for rent in Gwynedd were registered with Rent Smart Wales. It was added that the organisation gave recognition that a check had been conducted on a person (landlord) but was reliant on the Council to ensure that the property's standards were maintained. It was reported that property standards did not have to be disclosed in order to be registered with Rent Smart Wales. Members were encouraged to contact the Housing Department if they had concerns about specific property standards.
· The lack of response to the letters sent to the owners of empty houses was not surprising to the Unit. It was reported that the exercise of sending letters to owners was a frequent occurrence and that the response was always poor; the Unit was not sure why. It was noted that there were a number of reasons why owners chose to keep their houses empty, these ranged from sentimental to other reasons such as families keeping the houses for their children. It was added that the 300 letters were only sent across the coast of the county to see what the response would be; the next step would be to send letters to the owners of empty houses in the whole county, which would be around 1,200. It was hoped that a better response would be received to these letters. It was added that the 41 vacant houses that had already come back into use were as a result of a combination of a number of schemes across the county, e.g. first-time buyer loans and loans to bring houses back to standard.
· The same message was being disseminated across the county and the empty houses grants for first-time buyers were available to all. It was reported that there was no waiting list and perhaps the scheme needed further promotion so that people were aware of its existence; the Unit would act on this.
· The Homelessness Service received cases of homelessness before the statutory period of 56 days. Cases were accepted when the notice was served, usually within 6 months; a lot of preventative work was done during this period before the end of the 56 days. It was reported that the service was able to communicate with landlords and seek alternative housing for its clients. It was added that Gwynedd Council was one of the top four Councils across the country for taking steps to prevent homelessness.
· The Council had an open relationship with the Housing Associations, which included regular contact. Members were welcome to contact the Housing Department if they had difficulty receiving a response from the Housing Associations in Gwynedd. It was added that informing members of when social housing became vacant was not part of the process of letting social housing. The Cabinet Member noted that he was also keen for the Housing Associations to inform members when social housing became vacant. It was believed that Housing Associations should be asked to provide this information at the beginning of the new Council term. It was noted that this was part of the principles of information sharing that the Department was trying to achieve with the One Stop Shop and Members' Intranet.
· There had been a significant increase in applications for social housing during the year, which had resulted in delays in some cases in terms of responding to enquiries from Members and the public. It was explained that the Unit was looking at solutions to a number of enquiries, e.g. the Unit was looking at options to develop an app so that applicants could access their applications directly. Apologies were expressed for the delay. It was added that the team had been under pressure and it was hoped that the situation could be addressed through the One Stop Shop and improved collaboration. It was noted that other developments were in the pipeline to provide members with direct information via the Intranet, where recent activities in a specific area might be viewed. It was hoped that this development would become operational once the One Stop Shop was established.
· There had been an increase in the number of homelessness presentations due to the fact that the definition of 'homelessness' changed during the pandemic. In the past, if people were not in priority need then the Homelessness Service did not accept them. Following Government guidance that all people presenting as homeless should be accepted and housed, this led to a significant increase in numbers. It was reported that the numbers continued to increase, which was very worrying. It was thought that the increased numbers were due to private landlords giving tenants notices to leave because they wanted to sell their homes or convert them into holiday homes. It was also noted that there had been an increase in the number of relationship break-ups during the pandemic. It was anticipated that the numbers would not decrease in future and that the Government's requirement had been made permanent.
In response to a member's shrewd observation regarding the number of people in Gwynedd who had received support to live locally to date, it was reported that the figure of 1,163 (as noted on the Members' Intranet) was correct. It was noted that the figure of 1,754 noted in the report was correct for the Housing Strategy, which had been operational since 2019, but that the figure of 1,163 was relevant for the Housing Action Plan, which had been operational since 2021.
It was added that members were encouraged to refer to the Members' Intranet, which would be updated regularly by the Housing Department. To conclude, the Committee was thanked for all its scrutiny work over the years, for their positive and constructive feedback, and for their involvement in the development process of the Housing Action Plan.
Thanks were expressed to the Head of the Housing Department and the Cabinet Member for their work, as well as the Department's officers.
a) To accept the report, noting the observations made during the meeting.
b) To request a further update next year to the Care Scrutiny Committee on the Housing Action Plan.