Meeting housing needs is ‘increasing challenge’, says watchdog chairman

MORE than half the 11,886 houses owned and rented out by registered social landlords (RSLs) in the Borders are below the quality standard set by the Scottish Government.

And an estimated 656 tenants, or 5.8 per cent, in the region are more than 13 weeks in arrears with their rent, compared with the Scottish median of 3.3 per cent.

By far the most indebted tenants – 483 or 8.6 per cent – are with the Scottish Borders Housing Association (SBHA), the largest RSL, with 5,600 lettable units out of its total housing stock of 5,874. That landord was responsible last year for 16 of the 31 vacant possessions obtained through eviction.

The figures, registered with the Scottish Housing Regulator, relate to 2009-10 and were revealed to last week’s meeting of the watchdog scrutiny panel of Scottish Borders Council which sought to review its relationship with the RSLs, with particular regard to the latter’s letting policies.

Although the council has no authority over how the independent landlords let their properties, it may enact legislation which makes it a duty of the RSLs to provide accommodation for people who present themselves as homeless in the Borders. Last year, 918 such applications were made with 629 assessed as homeless.

The scrutiny probe was arranged last September, before the council settled a legal claim by SBHA in relation to the former SBC houses it acquired for £24million in 2003.

With that deal came a concordat between the two organisations which, we revealed last month, had engaged in no meaningful discussions since the compensation claim was first lodged in 2004.

That agreement was warmly welcomed by the watchdog, not least for the its explicit aims to address homelessness, reduce evictions, provide much-needed new affordable homes and create apprenticeships as SBHA seeks to bring its properties up to the Scottish Housing Quality Standard (SHQS).

Councillors heard that of the 11,886 RSL homes (nearly 30 per cent of all houses in the Borders), 97 per cent were owned by the four major landlords: SBHA (5,874 units), Eildon Housing Association (1,850), Berwickshire Housing Association (1,728) and Waverley Housing (1,534) and representatives of all these organisations attended the hearing.

It was stated that, last year, only 20 per cent – 1,182 units – of the SBHA stock met the SHQS criteria set by the Scottish Government which has given RSLs until 2015 to bring property up to standard.

This contrasts with Waverley (80 per cent), Berwickshire (78.5 per cent) and Eildon ((97.8 per cent) but the overall figure for the Borders emerges at just 43.9 per cent, compared with the Scottish average of 70.4 per cent compliance.

Meanwhile, weekly average rents were £53.66 last year, £6.37 below the Scottish average.

“It was a most illuminating meeting which really hit home the challenges faced by the landlords and the council in delivering affordable housing, and tackling and alleviating homelessness.” said scrutiny member Councillor Gavin Logan.

Scrutiny chairman Councillor Donald Moffat told us: “Meeting the housing needs of residents of the Borders is an increasing challenge and it was heartening to hear how well the council and the RSLs are working creatively in partnership to find solutions.”

A statement, endorsed by the SBC and the RSLs, stated: “The scrutiny panel was impressed with the joint commitment and collaborative working ... towards alleviating homelessness and delivering sustainable and affordable housing development opportunities.

“Projects like the supported accommodation at Albert Place in Galashiels for young people leaving care were highlighted as particular examples of delivering needs-led housing solutions for vulnerable young people in the Borders.”