The challenges faced by the Housing Service have historically been similar and ongoing; a lack of suitable housing, tackling rough sleeping and homelessness, how to help and support the poorest and most vulnerable in our society. We have risen to these challenges in previous years, although they remain stubbornly present. However, two massive global issues cast an additional shadow over us at this time. These are the coronavirus pandemic, which has placed enormous pressure on the service in 2020, and Climate Change, where too little action on a local, national and global scale now means that significant investment and work is required to address this emergency situation.
Coronavirus management and recovery
The upheaval caused by the 2020 coronavirus pandemic has required the whole Council to make significant changes to their operations. The main headquarters at Honiton and Exmouth Town Hall remain closed to the public, and can now only offer “covid-secure” office space to a small number of staff. However, the Housing Service have been able to continue essential services albeit with social distancing and additional PPE and through increased home working and relying on email and telephone for contact with customers and tenants in most cases.
Over the year, further spikes in the disease have led to more periods of stringent restrictions. The Housing Service has had an effective plan in place to pull back from and reintroduce services in line with the ebb and flow of the virus.
The recovery from Covid-19 also provides opportunities to learn lessons. The community efforts to maintain contact with and support our more vulnerable residents were inspirational. We will seek to keep that sense of community through the recovery.
Homes at the Heart campaign
The pandemic forced all of us to spend more time in our homes. In July 2020, The National Housing Federation (NHF), in partnership with the Chartered Institute of Housing (CIH), Crisis and others, called for the home to be at the centre of our national recovery from the Coronavirus. The campaign highlighted the poor quality and lack of space in many homes across the country. For those people living in substandard or crowded homes, the negative mental and physical health impact caused by multiple lockdowns and restrictions are even starker as a result of the poor conditions they have been forced to live under. The NHF led partnership has called for greater investment in social housing as part of the recovery from the pandemic providing both economic and social recovery.
In addition to this the NHF has identified 5 key areas in housing that should be prioritised as part of the recovery:
- No return to rough sleeping
- A new generation of affordable homes
- Helping people to thrive at home
- A new drive to decarbonise social housing
- Change for communities across the country
These are national priorities, but it is clear that they align closely with ambitions that EDDC hold. We will work with our social housing partners across the district towards these common aims, strengthening existing relationships and forging new ones to improve the future for all East Devon residents.
The Council have already committed to a green recovery plan, and the Housing Service will focus on opportunities to adopt a greener approach to our work as we move forwards.
In 2019, EDDC became a full signatory of the Devon Climate Declaration. We are seeking to reduce our carbon footprint across the council in order to meet the ambitious target of being a carbon neutral authority by 2040. Housing is a big part of the Council’s energy consumption, and the Housing Service will need to assess the impact of our stock on the environment and seek to reduce that impact. A corporate Climate Change Strategy has been produced, and a number of actions have been developed for the Housing Service from that.
We intend to carry out a Stock Condition Survey over the next year to 18 months. This will provide the information to enable us to develop and carry out a far reaching and comprehensive programme of improvement works focused on improving the energy efficiency of our stock. The Housing service will also need to adjust its ways of working, reflecting on the impact of its activities on the environment (including travel, meetings and stationary usage) and adjusting its practices accordingly. We will also seek to train staff and educate tenants.
Lack of suitable housing
EDDC have been undertaking a longitudinal study of tenants and housing register applicants. This study, “Your Home: Your wellbeing”, has been produced in partnership with LiveWest and Birmingham University and is already confirming the wider benefits that living in affordable, secure accommodation brings in relation to money matters, mental health and general wellbeing.
In East Devon, we have a combination of high house prices, high private rents and a low proportion of social and affordable rent properties across the district. There is currently a waiting list of over 4500 on Devon Home Choice. This environment is the backdrop for a number of challenges that EDDC face, but it also underlines the value of the service we can offer.
Increase in homelessness
The introduction of new legislation and duties on local authorities in 2018 has opened up homelessness prevention services to more people. Whilst this impacted on the level of work required by our Housing Options team to assist those who are homeless or at risk of becoming homeless it also means that we are helping more people in need.
Due to a reduction in the amount of supported accommodation in the district there has been an increase in approaches from people with more complex needs (including mental and physical health issues).
Further pressure on the system was added with the arrival of the Coronavirus pandemic early in 2020. The need for people to self-isolate, the “everybody in” strategy to house all rough sleepers and the additional influx of people who had been sofa-surfing led to a big increase in the number of people in temporary accommodation. Although this has now subsided, It is anticipated that there will be another rise in homelessness applications when restrictions ease and the moratorium on evictions ends.
The reduction in central government funding for local services and the unexpected financial implications of Coronavirus is likely to cause significant budgetary pressures over the coming years.
Although a lot of the funding for our housing services are covered through the Housing Revenue Account, it is incumbent on all council departments to seek out opportunities and activities that can generate income. This will enable the Council to continue to deliver outstanding services to all residents of East Devon.
Welfare Reform and the Poverty Agenda
Tackling poverty in East Devon is a high priority for EDDC. A report to the council’s Overview committee in November 2019 provided a stark picture of the struggles that many families across our district face. Close to 11,000 households are living below the poverty line, with 22% of children in the district classed as being in poverty. Changes in the welfare system have exacerbated the situation. Looking at our tenants alone, the impact of Universal credit on rent arrears is marked. As at January 2021, we had 865 tenants in receipt of UC (21% of our tenant population). 41% of these were in arrears at this time. Taking the rent arrears total across our stock, the 21% of tenants on UC were responsible for 34% of total rent arrears.
Social Housing White Paper
Published in November 2020, the Government’s social housing white paper introduces a new charter for social housing residents which sets out what every social housing resident should be able to expect:
- To be safe in your home
- To know how you landlord is performing
- To have your complaints dealt with promptly and fairly
- To be treated with respect
- To have your voice heard by your landlord
- To have a good quality home and neighbourhood to live in
- To be supported to take your first step to ownership
It is our desire to be the gold standard as a social landlord and many of the priorities identified within the white paper reflect our own ambitions.