Opinion: How we transformed council housing in Perth and Kinross

Cllr Peter Barrett is Perth and Kinross Council’s Housing and Health Convenor. He was once described in the local newspaper as the “Saviour of Tay Street” after defeating a previous administration’s car parking plans. Here he describes how he has transformed the housing service for the better. I’ve always thought that housing is one of the most important issues to sort. In fact, I’d say that there’s little point in the Pupil Premium if the kids it’s there to support don’t have warm, dry, comfortable homes to live in and enough food to eat. It’s hard to learn if you’re cold and hungry.

My first task as Housing and Health convenor for Perth and Kinross Council following the 2007 election was to set the political priorities for housing and adult care.  Top of the list was improving the council’s homeless services.

The picture then was pretty bleak.

The Council had received a damning inspection report from Communities Scotland where services were rated D which meant Poor. The Council was not on track to meet the Government’s interim homeless targets and could not expand priority need assessments to additional vulnerable groups of homeless applicants.

There was the added embarrassment of regularly having to report this to Committee.  The Council’s housing allocations policy, criticised by Communities Scotland, had been suspended for giving insufficient priority to homeless applicants.

The condition of the council-run hostel was deemed unsatisfactory and breaches of the unsuitable accommodation order for families in B&B were numerous.

My first step was to invest in the upgrading of the Council’s Greyfriars hostel.  Converting the ground floor bedrooms into offices for support staff provided on-site specialist social work services and did away with the drug dealing which had previously been conducted through the barred widows.  The hostel was redecorated, carpets laid, laundry installed, bath and shower facilities upgraded. A curfew was introduced, a residents’ group formed, cooking classes arranged and a tv lounge provided.  The place was unrecognisable from its previous state but the transformation was more than just physical. The whole atmosphere of the hostel was changed.

Over the course of the next year I led the development of a new allocations policy,  convening a working group with cross party membership of councillors,  officers and tenant representatives.  This group also oversaw the parallel introduction of a Housing Options service to provide realistic advice to people applying for a Council house on their chances of success and what their best options were to get the sort of house they needed or wanted and help to prepare their own personal housing plan.

With a waiting list of 5,000 and council house vacancies running at below 300 a year it was clear that the majority of people waiting are never going to be reached with an offer of housing and will inevitably fall below newer applicants with greater housing needs.

In 2008 the Council bought Rio, a former Abbeyfield home close to Perth city centre and in my ward, to fill the gap which existed for suitable temporary accommodation for families.  The proposal was met with vociferous opposition from some of the local community, anticipating all the stigmatised homeless stereotypes, and from parents of the primary school next door.  Being defended by a December editorial in “The Courier” which also appealed to local residents to demonstrate some Christian compassion for their neighbours remains for me an abiding memory of a testing time.

In August Rio opened its doors for up to eight families and pregnant women and there hasn’t been one complaint or issue raised since then.  The quality of the facilities at Rio are first class with bright attractive communal kitchens, a smaller kitchen suitable for providing cooking lessons in privacy and an excellent nursery/children’s play area as well as a large garden. Rio and concerted efforts to place families mean breaches of unsuitable accommodation are a thing of the past.

Perth and Kinross Council has operated a common housing register with the two main registered social landlords in the area, Perthshire Housing Association and Hillcrest. With the new draft allocations policy out for consultation both organisations expressed their desire to adopt the policy.  In one move we would now have a single and consistent assessment of housing needs across the council area and nomination rights to 95% of social rented housing throughout Perth and Kinross.

Perth has always had a strong private rented housing sector and it is vital that we make this sector accessible to people coming to the council for housing.  We introduced a dedicated private sector access team to achieve this aim.  The team administer a rent bond guarantee scheme whereby the Council acts as guarantor for the tenant, reducing the need to pay upfront deposits. So far this year the scheme has enabled 170 households to access the private sector and only one bond has had to be redeemed.  The access team also run our not-for-profit lettings agency, PKC Lets, which offers the full range of property management services to private sector landlords with affordable private rented properties advertised on the PKC lets web-site to which approved landlords can have direct access to put up properties.  The team also organise a landlords’ forum to address issues from standards to homelessness prevention and managing arrears.

We have been active in developing new council houses and currently have a total of 86 approved we started with much needed four and five bedroom properties to address overcrowding for families. My goal is to put in place a business and investment plan to fund a rolling programme of 50 new council houses per year.

We’ve been re-inspected by the Housing Regulator and our homeless service won’t be getting another D. That is all I can say for now.

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This entry was posted in Op-eds and Scotland.
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