Local News, Wokingham Borough News|

RESIDENTS are being urged to have their say on how social housing is allocated across Wokingham borough.

Wokingham Borough Council is seeking people’s views on its new draft housing allocation policy, which it is updating because of changes in the law and an unprecedented increase in demand for accommodation caused largely by the impact of the coronavirus pandemic. These pressures are exacerbated by shifts in how people are working, with many more based at home than before the outbreak, and rising costs across the private rental sector as more prospective tenants chase fewer properties. Costs have also increased in the construction industry, again because of Covid-19, and this has a knock-on effect on the owners of shared equity homes.

A six-week public consultation was approved at a meeting of the authority’s executive on Thursday (30 September) and residents will be able to share their thoughts from now until 15 November.

The council’s housing allocation policy was last updated more than six years ago and the latest version includes several important updates to ensure it continues to help as many people as possible. Once all feedback has been reviewed, it could be adopted in January next year before coming into effect from April onwards.

Between the end of March last year and the same time this year, the number of households on the council’s social housing register increased from 1,681 to 2,086. Of these, 1,503 were in Band 4, the lowest priority. At the same time, the number of affordable homes being built in the borough has been affected by staff and material shortages arising from the coronavirus pandemic so demand continues to exceed supply. The council therefore proposes introducing a fifth priority band to help it understand people’s needs more clearly and assist the most urgent cases first.

Band 5 applicants could include those working but not living in Wokingham borough, owner occupiers, people in a stronger financial position and former tenants evicted for rent arrears or anti-social behaviour. All applicants would be asked to prove that they, or a member of their household, have lived in the borough for at least five years running and still do at the time of applying. This is standard practice among many local authorities and ensures that people with long-standing local roots are given the support they need.

The draft policy would allow exceptions, such as periods of rough sleeping, to ensure everyone is treated fairly. People having to move to the borough in special circumstances, such as those fleeing violence or crime, would also be assessed on a case-by-case basis.

The council remains committed to offering applicants choice so everyone will be able to express a preference for certain areas in the borough. However, the ability to meet this may be limited by pressure on housing and the need to make best use of available properties.

All applicants would still be offered suitable and affordable accommodation but would be removed from the housing register if they turned the first offer down. This is to ensure the council’s scarce resources are targeted at those who need them most and to tackle a long-standing problem of applicants refusing places without reasonable grounds.

If an applicant can’t live in a particular area because of their personal circumstances, this could be taken into account and expressing a preference for one area wouldn’t affect anyone’s chances of being offered housing somewhere else. The draft policy also gives increased priority to members of the armed forces community, who may be exempted from the local connection test. Additionally, to encourage residents to seek and stay in work, at least 10 per cent of properties would be set aside each year for households in permanent employment at least 16 hours a week.

At the moment, about 100 households are currently in temporary accommodation awaiting rehousing while the monthly cost of placing applicants in emergency lodgings like B&Bs has risen to unprecedented levels. To address this, applicants agreeing not to accept temporary accommodation would be placed in a higher priority band.

Cllr John Kaiser, executive member for finance and housing, said: “With pressure growing on our housing stock, especially given the economic and social impacts of Covid-19, it is more vital than ever that our allocation policy protects local homes for local people. Without a doubt, the pandemic has played a significant part in this problem and increasing rents and housing costs across the borough are unlikely to change in the short term. As such, we need robust and clear policies which protect and make good quality social housing available for our most vulnerable residents. Housing plays a huge role in the health, environment and economic well-being of everyone who lives in the borough and this proposal will ensure we continue to prioritise residents whose need is greatest. We understand the importance of choice and will continue doing our very best to respect applicants’ preferences but, in light of the current challenges, it is imperative that we primarily address needs rather than wants. At the same time, we recognise the need to be flexible and appreciate that some people’s circumstances may justify an exception to the policy. We would consider each application on its own merits. This proposal will reduce homelessness, rough sleeping and overcrowding while helping those in need to find suitable accommodation. It will also reduce the use of costly temporary solutions, freeing up resources which could be better spent elsewhere.”

To take part in the consultation, visit citizenlabco.typeform.com/to/dhD5tuNL or visit the council’s website at http://www.wokingham.gov.uk and search for ‘consultations’.

If you would like help with the consultation, including a paper copy, please phone the council offices on 0118 974 6000.

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