The Minutes of the Meeting held on 21st September 2005 (Minute Nos. 316 - 318) were taken as read, approved and signed by the Chairman as a correct record.
The Chairman informed Members that regarding Minute No. 318/09/05 and following his letter to the Chief Executive of Canterbury and Coastal Primary Care Trust, with reference to the lack of provision of a Handyman Service in Faversham, he had received a letter in response, which was tabled at the meeting.
With regard to Minute No. 432/10/05 it was further noted that the Chairman's report considering the provision of affordable housing would be reconsidered by the Executive on 14th December 2005.
declarations of interest
In accordance with Standing Order No. 25(b), Councillor Calvert declared a personal interest in respect of Minute No. 459 below, due to his membership of Swale Housing Association, as a Council appointed representative. Councillor Calvert remained in the meeting room but did not vote.
In accordance with Standing Order No. 25(c), Councillor Prescott, on his arrival at the meeting, declared a prejudicial interest in respect of Minute No. 459 below, due to his position on the Housing Aid and Advice Management Committee. He left the room for this item.
housing advice and housing strategy / housing advice review
The Chairman welcomed the witnesses to the meeting and asked the Homelessness and Housing Development Manager to explain how housing aid and advice was structured at Swale Borough Council (SBC).
The Homelessness and Housing Development Manager explained that SBC had a statutory duty to provide advice on housing aid. She noted that SBC worked in conjunction with the Citizens Advice Bureau (CAB) through a Service Level Agreement. She informed Members that the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister (ODPM) had placed great emphasis on tackling homelessness and SBC had restructured their service over the last two years to address these issues. The number of homeless applications had decreased dramatically. She explained that greater emphasis was placed on preventing homelessness through pro-active measures, for example, negotiating rent arrears with landlords and referring clients to CABs Money Advice Service. It was further noted that the Housing Department had a one hundred percent track record with Housing Benefit overpayments.
The Manager of the Housing Aid and Advice Centre for Swale explained that the Centre was a registered Charity providing independent housing advice. Although they received funding from SBC it did not compromise their independent status and they worked alongside other agencies and Housing Associations. She noted that Housing Aid had attained the award of the Legal Services Commission Specialist Quality Mark, making them a specialist Housing Advice Agency. She explained that housing aid was operated primarily through a telephone helpline and three drop-in sessions, once a week in Sittingbourne, Faversham and Sheerness, although they also undertook appointments and occasionally home visits. Clients were of any status, regardless of need and the service provided independent, impartial and confidential advice. She informed Members that Housing Aid were actively sourcing other funding as resources were limited.
In reference to a question from the Chairman, the Manager for the Housing Aid and Advice Centre for Swale informed Members that the current staffing situation at the Centre was 2.5 people, which included the Manager.
In response to a question from a Member, the Homelessness and Housing Development Manager explained that they currently had two Homelessness Officers working in the Department, although a report outlining the staffing situation could be provided to the Panel.
A representative from Swale CAB informed Members that the CAB was a national association and they held Legal Services Commission Specialist Quality Marks in welfare benefit and debt. She referred Members to two tabled items, which provided further information regarding CABs work. She explained that Swale CAB saw around 150 clients per week and staff were a mix of volunteers and paid casework advisers. She noted that, although there was a range of enquiries to Swale CAB, the most common queries were regarding housing benefit and rent and mortgage arrears. CAB therefore had a significant role in assisting clients to stay in their homes through negotiation of debt repayment. She considered the Homelessness Officers at SBC to be an extremely valuable resource and explained that CAB also had a good relationship with both Shelter and the Housing Aid and Advice Centre.
A representative from Shelter outlined the role of the Charity in Swale. She explained that they dealt with anyone with a housing problem and offered free advice to all. She informed Members that Shelter employed a legal services team at their London headquarters, which allowed them access to current case law, which was a valuable resource for their clients. They also held the Legal Services Commission Special Quality Mark in housing. She further noted that they provided a prison consultancy service for inmates and staff and had recently employed an Education Officer to visit schools and educate pupils on the options available to them with regard to housing. Her colleague at Shelter further noted that the Charity provided support and advice for local authorities regarding welfare benefit, debt and housing advice.
The Chairman asked for information regarding the extent of homelessness in Swale. In response, the representative from Shelter explained that, although Shelter's figures were not an accurate reflection of homelessness in Swale, they had identified 52.7% of their clients as having homelessness as their main concern. The Manager of the Housing Advice and Aid Centre in Swale replied that they categorised into 'no fixed abode' or 'roofless'. She observed that 460 of their clients were considered to be of no-fixed abode, whilst 67 were considered roofless. The Head of Housing Services further noted that it was possible to categorise between intentional and unintentional homelessness.
In response to a question from the Chairman, the Homelessness and Housing Development Manager explained that Shelter was not a consultee in the Housing Review, as SBC did not provide Shelter with funding and have no Service Level Agreement with the charity. However, clients were referred to Shelter from SBC if it was felt they could assist clients, particularly if the housing issue was outside the Swale area. She further noted that SBC provided clients with a follow-up letter outlining the advice provided. The letter was based on a form signed by both parties involved, confirming what advice had been given. The representative from Shelter noted that this was considered best practice. The Chairman considered that it would be useful to have Shelter's comments on the outcome of the Housing Review Consultation document. The representative for Shelter concurred and noted that Shelter had previously offered advice to local authorities on improving methods and ideas.
The Chairman observed that there appeared to be a complimentary network of relationships between the agencies, allowing them to work together to serve the community. The Head of Housing Services responded by explaining that the purpose of the Housing Review was to test the services and how well they complimented each other and what they offered. He further noted that the organisations consulted for the review were only those agencies that SBC have a Service Level Agreement with.
The Executive Member for Housing explained that the review would also suggest improvements in good practice. He considered that homelessness was socially disruptive and financially onerous for all parties and prevention was the most important factor, which was best achieved by good advice and pre-emptive action.
(1) That a report be submitted to the Panel outlining the structure of housing advice at SBC, clarification on the term 'Housing Options', the Agenda the ODPM set and how it impacted on housing legislation and the demand for housing advice in Swale.
(2) That a new meeting of the Community Plan Scrutiny Panel be scheduled for 15th December 2005 to consider the findings of the Housing Advice Review.
disabled facilities grant
Councillor Prescott was invited to return to the Committee Room for the remainder of the meeting.
The Senior Environmental Health Officer informed Members that SBC had a mandatory duty to approve Disabled Facilities Grants (DFG) within six months. As of the 30th September 2005 there were 188 people on the waiting list.
He explained that in September 2005 Members approved a priority system for the approval of DFGs. This was introduced to assess the impact a DFG would have on the client in enabling them to remain in their own home. He noted that a review of the priority system would be undertaken, although he considered that, in general, it had worked well.
He explained that Swale had the second largest DFG budget in Kent but the area faced a high level of demand. An extra £20,000 was received from the Government Office of the South East following a letter that was sent to their Kent Area Director. However, as funds remained limited the waiting list was also valuable in enabling them to monitor the budget more effectively. He advised Members that 49% of DFGs were paid to Amicus Housing Association tenants. He referred Members to the agreement with Swale Housing Association, as outlined in the report and the Government Review undertaken by Bristol University.
In response to a question from the Chairman, the Senior Environmental Health Officer explained that the Government used the disability allowance as an indicator of the number of disabled people living in an area. The Government had acknowledged that this was problematic and suggested allowing local offices to assess the need in their area. He observed that the numbers of referrals for DFGs were decreasing; in October 2004 they had 221, whilst in October 2005 it was 111. He advised that at the present referral rate, by the end of the year, there would be approximately 230 people on the DFG waiting list.
(1) That the report on the Disabled Facilities Grant be noted.