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Council / Homeless accommodation charges to rise despite council house rent freeze

The freeze voted in by councillors did not include certain types of housing, SIC says

A FREEZE on council house rents recently imposed by councillors to soften the blow of the cost of living crisis has ended up not including homeless accommodation.

This is understood to have caused grumbles among some elected members who did not know this would be the case when supporting councillor Ian Scott’s amendment.

The situation boils down to how the amendment was worded in the council chamber and what housing charges it related to.

As a result, the homeless accommodation occupancy charge will rise by 2.5 per cent from the start of the 2022/23 financial year.

This is because the council says after the decision made in February only rent in the local authority’s housing revenue account will be frozen, and this does not include temporary accommodation for homelessness.

Shetland Central councillor Ian Scott. Photo: Chris Cope/Shetland News

This accommodation is instead part of the council’s general fund, which provides wider services to the public.

The housing revenue account features general council housing, and the income from tenants’ rent pays related expenditure such as upkeep of the buildings.

People on housing benefit in homeless accommodation will have the rent increase covered, but there will be some tenants who will not be eligible for support.

The general housing fund also includes some properties like former schoolhouses, and these rents will also go up by 2.5 per cent.

Shetland Central councillor Scott proposed the amendment to freeze council tax and housing rent against officers’ recommendation, and received enough votes for it to pass.

He insists that freezing charges for homeless accommodation formed part of his amendment, which he felt covered all rent.

But council convener Malcolm Bell, who chaired the meeting in question, said Scott made “absolutely no mention” of a schedule of charges which included the general fund’s homeless rates.

“We must first establish rules of debate,” Scott said.

“In this case, the proposal from the leadership was that council taxes and council rents be raised.

“My amendment was fairly straightforward, which stated that council rents and council tax be frozen for a year, and that the resulting shortfall be drawn from our reserves.

“My amendment won, and thus consigns any previous mention of rates and council taxes to the dustbin, leaving the amendment – now the substantive, the motion – as the only issue under debate.

“Purely and simply, to freeze the tax and rents. For us to end up where our leadership says we are, would have meant that our members agreed on a subsequent amendment, saying for instance, that we freeze tax and rents, except for the homeless.

“This did not happen, although there was a fairly concentrated debate concerning two other amendments. This was a straightforward motion. No ifs, no buts, no differentiation.

“To even hint that the amendment targeted the homeless is completely out of order. Everyone in the chamber knew exactly what they were voting on.”

Malcolm Bell. Photo: Chris Cope/Shetland News

But Bell said Scott’s amendment was “clear and straightforward” – in that it did not cover general fund charges.

“Indeed, as chair of the meeting I went to some length to clarify with councillor Scott exactly what he wished contained within his amendment and what he didn’t,” he said.

“Councillor Scott was clear he supported the leader’s motion, which was based on the report’s recommendation and also the recommendation from previous committees, with the exception of the parts dealing with council tax and housing revenue account rents.

“He made absolutely no mention of the schedule of charges which was contained in a separate part of the original recommendation nor were any questions raised about the proposed rise in charges, all of which were clearly set out in the report to members.”

Bell said officials can, and must, only implement decisions as “explicitly articulated” by members.

“They cannot implement what they think members might have meant,” he continued.

“One can only imagine where this might lead given how often we hear misguided talk of ‘officers running the council’.

“If a member chooses to bring an amendment which goes contrary not only to a report’s recommendation but as in this case also the recommendations of both the development and policy and resources committees, then it is incumbent on that member to ensure they fully understand the consequences of what they propose.”

Meanwhile as general housing rent gets frozen at the council, there will be a 3.5 per cent increase at Hjaltland Housing Association.

This will increase rents by an average of £3.34 per week to maintain current services.

A consultation was held with Hjaltland tenants, with 91 responses received. They were presented with two options – the £3.34 rise or a larger one of £3.97, which would generate an additional £27,000 to help the association work towards energy efficiency targets.

Eight in ten people picked option one, and just under nine per cent of tenants who responded to the survey said they had some concerns regarding affordability.

The association’s management committee debated the proposed rent increase and approved the £3.34 per week rise, which will take effect as of 1 April.