Challenging times for affordable housing providers in North Devon

New reforms set to hit social housing groups

Thursday, February 09, 2012

North Devon Journal

Joel Cooper

A HUGE raft of Government reforms and a growing waiting list means challenging times for affordable housing providers in North Devon, a housing manager has warned.

  1. HARD TIMES: Nigel Barnard.

Nigel Barnard, managing director of Tarka Housing in Bideford, says a combination of funding cuts, welfare reforms and the localism bill could have a big knock-on effect for those living in social housing over the next six months.

Tarka Housing was formed in 2007 when it successfully bid to take over Torridge District Council’s housing service.

The firm controls around 1,800 homes in the Torridge district and also boasts an in-house team which carries out ground maintenance, gas servicing, repairs and decoration.

Over the past five years Tarka Housing has spent millions of pounds improving its housing stock with new kitchens, bathrooms, photovoltaic panels, extra insulation and decoration.

But with almost 4,000 people on the waiting list for affordable housing in Torridge and North Devon, and with less Government money available for new housing, the firm is having to look for new ways to increase its housing stock.

Mr Barnard, who took charge of Tarka Housing when it formed in 2007, said: “Grant funding for affordable housing has been significantly cut so we are always looking for new ways to make savings.

“Our parent company Westward has set up a company called New Horizon Homes which will build houses for the open market.

“But the profit from these will be gift aided back into our company and used to provide more affordable housing.

“We also work jointly with 17 other housing associations to give us all greater buying power.

“For example, a big group of businesses can get better deals when buying things like kitchens, bathrooms and boilers.

“We are also looking at how to improve our energy efficiency.

“Oil burning boilers in isolated, rural locations can cost a fortune to run, so we are looking into the possibility of installing ground source air pumps to save customers money.”

Nigel, who has worked in the affordable housing business for 30 years, says he has never seen so many national changes introduced in one go.

He said: “It’s a challenging time. Spending cuts, localism, welfare reforms and police cuts all have a cumulative effect on us.

“They will force the industry to evolve and we are endlessly planning for the future.

“For example, under the Government welfare reforms, tenants will have to pay their rent to us rather than it coming direct from the local authority.

“This will have a big impact on our tenants. If they are on a low income and have to decide whether to pay the rent or the electricity bill, it’s a tough decision.

“It could also lead to increased rent arrears, the risk of eviction and thousands of extra transactional costs for us.”

As part of the Government’s welfare reform bill, from 2013 some social housing tenants could face benefit cuts if their house is under-occupied.

The plans will restrict housing benefit to allow for one bedroom for each person or couple living as part of the household.

Those with extra unoccupied bedrooms will lose 14 per cent of their housing benefit if they have one extra bedroom and 25 per cent if they have two or more extra bedrooms.

Nigel said: “One of the biggest challenges is figuring out the final outcome of these plans and how it will impact on our customers.

“Some people may have lived in their home for a very long time when, for example, their children leave to go to university.

“All of a sudden they have two extra rooms and are losing a substantial chunk of their benefits.

“I understand the need to maximise the use of our social housing stock, but is that really fair?”

Tarka Housing, through its parent company Westward, is hoping to build an extra 50 homes in Bideford and Holsworthy in the near future and Nigel says the firm is always looking for potential sites.

He said: “The biggest challenge over the next few years is positioning ourselves to deliver improvements to our housing stock and building new affordable homes.

“While it will certainly be a big challenge, I am optimistic about the future. We want to learn and constantly improve the way we do things.

“This year is our fifth anniversary and we are way ahead of our business schedule.

“This has allowed us to deliver even more improvements and bring future projects forward, which is great news.”