Tenants’ rent is only spent on housing: services for council tenants, repairs, large scale upgrades to existing homes – things like new roofs or lifts or windows – and building new council homes.
Every year we set a one-year budget, which includes setting rent levels for the coming year; a ten- year strategy, which sets investment plans for new and existing homes; and a 30-year strategy, which makes sure that the HRA remains healthy and that we can afford all of the investment we want to make.
And there is a lot of investment we want to make. We’ve proposed £2.9bn of investment in council housing over the next ten years. Much of this is about building desperately needed new council homes to replace the stock we lost through the Tory Right to Buy policy, which has sadly seen many former council homes turn into unaffordable private lets.
We’ll also invest £850m in existing homes. Energy efficiency measures are a big part, improving the quality of life for council tenants and resulting in warmer homes that are cheaper to heat.
We’ll continue with improvements inside tenant’s homes but also spend money on communal areas and the wider estates. Tenants have said they want better bin stores, playparks, community growing spaces, benches, landscaping and planting. This will make outdoor space useable, safe and bring a wealth of wellbeing benefits.
We can’t compromise our ability to make these investments. They’re crucial to the quality of life for tenants. Which is why proposing a rent freeze this year was a hard decision to make.
Due to Covid, there have been delays to construction. At points sites were completely closed, but there have also been social distancing and health and safety requirements that have slowed work down over the last two years. So there has been an underspend. This means that although over the ten-year plan we need the additional funding we would have got from a 1.8 per cent rent increase, we don’t need it now. We can freeze rents and not affect investment as long as it is made up from slightly higher increases in later years.
And right now we have a cost of living crisis, created by the current UK Tory government, which is hitting people on the lowest incomes the hardest.
We’ve already seen the cut of £20 a week to universal credit – a loss of over £1000 a year to many families in Edinburgh. Energy prices have rocketed, with predictions that they’ll continue to rise. Too many people face the stark choice between feeding their families and heating their homes. And from April there will be an increase in National Insurance contributions. A wholly regressive tax where people on lower incomes pay a disproportionately higher amount.
And the ONS announced last week that inflation is the highest it’s been for nearly 30 years. But while overall it’s 5.4 per cent, essentials go up by much, much more. Again, hitting people already struggling far harder.
So a rent freeze in this exceptional year feels like a difficult choice, but the right one.
Cllr Kate Campbell is Housing, Homelessness and Fair Work Committee Convener