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In February 2018 the council agreed a 5-year rent strategy based on an annual rent increase of 3% to 2022/23. This has been followed up each year-end by a consultation programme with tenants groups.
In the wake of the Covid pandemic however, and with thousands of families expected to be hit hard by a reduction in Universal Credit, the opposition SNP group on West Lothian Council has renewed its call for a freeze in rent increases.
The SNP argued that the policy put in place in 2018 takes no account of the hardships thrust upon tenants since then.
Depute SNP group leader Councillor Frank Anderson pointed to the pandemic and its related financial consequences .
He added that no account had been taken of the potential consequences of the removal of £20 uplift in Universal Credit, applied first during the pandemic but removed at the start of October.
It is reckoned this will hurt the hardest hit families costing them over £1,000 a year.
The Services for the Community Policy Development and Scrutiny Panel (PDSP) agreed plans for a tenants’ consultation should go for approval to the Executive this week.
In her report to the PDSP Sarah Kelly from the housing department said: “Taking into account these requirements, and Covid related restrictions on face to face meeting activities, engagement with tenants will take place largely digitally, and will begin in October. This engagement will include presentations to Housing Networks, The Financial Scrutiny meeting of the Tenants Panel, and via social media channels and on-line publications.”
Answering councillor Anderson’s question as to whether the effects of the pandemic and removal of the £20 had been considered, Ms Kelly said that there had been little change in the levels of rent collection throughout the pandemic, with no big drop in payments. There was no evidence yet of what the removal of the UC uplift would have.
Councillor Anderson said: “We still have over £3 million of rent arrears. Many people are having to choose over heating, eating or paying their rent. Our options must include freezing the rents.”
The opposition SNP have made rent freezes a central plank of their agenda during budget and council tax debates in the last three years, arguing that the council should use reserves it holds to alleviate problems for householders.
The rent strategy consultation goes before the council executive today.