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Council / Bid to freeze council house rent fails in vote

A PROPOSAL to freeze council house rent to support people in need failed to win enough support at a local authority meeting on Monday.

A 2.5 per cent increase has been recommended by council officers but at a meeting of the development committee on Monday Shetlland Central member Moraig Lyall proposed keeping it as it is in what she described as “unprecedented” times.

But committee chairman Alastair Cooper said housing rent increases were needed to pay for improving the council’s stock of housing.

Shetland Central councillor Moraig Lyall. Photo: Shetland News

Lyall’s motion was outvoted by five to four.

However, the same topic will be presented to councillors at other meetings next week before the rent rate is set in stone.

Council officers suggested the 2.5 per cent increase in line with housing revenue account business plan, which was set in 2017.

This followed a reduced one-off one per cent increase this financial year due make up for the impact of the Covid pandemic.

Tenants were consulted on three different price hikes – the 2.5 per cent rise was the lowest on the table.

But Lerwick North member John Fraser noted with some concern that only 225 tenants out of 1,700 responded to the survey.

Lyall asked what the current backlog of maintenance work is, with SIC housing manager Anita Jamieson saying there were about 700 to 800 mainly routine jobs needing done due to the pandemic.

When it came to debate Lyall said the council had the opportunity to do something to help those struggling as energy prices and inflation continue to rise.

“I believe that the situation is such that it merits making an immediate decision now, not to put any further pressure on families’ incomes,” she said.

Finance manager Jamie Manson said freezing the rent would mean £170,000 less income for the council over the next financial year.

When taking into account rising inflation there would be a larger cumulative impact of more than £1 million over the next five years, he told the meeting.

But Lyall said she felt freezing rent would not make a “material difference” in trying to meet the sizeable cost of upgrading housing in the long-term.

Lyall was backed by seconder Fraser, who said nobody could have envisaged the last two years.

“The result of that is that people are struggling,” he said.

“We do have the resources in order to try and alleviate some of the pressure that’s put on domestic homes and families at this current time.”

SIC development committee chairman Alastair Cooper.
SIC development committee chairman Alastair Cooper.

While Cooper said he was worried about energy price rises and had sympathy with tenants, he stressed a significant amount of work needs done on the council’s housing stock.

“At the end of the day if we don’t increase rents by inflation […] then we take that money out of the housing revenue account,” he said.

“If you take that money out of the housing revenue account, you don’t have the money to do the repairs and enhancements to the houses.”

Cooper, who sought assurances over the work the council is doing to help tenants with the cost of heating, said in effect more money would be going in the pockets of electricity companies.

He said “in actual fact we are doing no service to the tenants whatsoever” by reducing income which would go to maintenance.

Shetland South member Allison Duncan, who supported Cooper, said with ageing housing the cost of maintenance would end up being added to rent fees later down the line anyway.

But Lyall suggested the council could take stock after a year or two if the rent was frozen for 2022/23.

Those who voted for Lyall’s motion were Fraser, Alec Priest and Theo Smith.

In addition to Duncan the councillors siding with Cooper were Steven Coutts, Stephen Flaws and Robbie McGregor.

While the motion was outvoted, the housing budget proposals will be discussed at the SIC’s policy and resources committee and full council next week.

Cooper said he would make the case for raising council house rents for the same reasons at those meetings.