A BALLOT to determine the future of council-owned homes in Flintshire is drawing closer.
Tenants from 7,500 council properties across the county will make a very important decision in the autumn – to hand over control of their homes to a not-for-profit registered social landlord or stay with council ownership.
The Welsh Assembly Government (WAG) says all properties in Wales must be brought up to Welsh Housing Quality Standard (WHQS) by 2012, or as soon as possible after this date.
A stock condition survey revealed that Flintshire Council must make a substantial amount of improvements to its homes to meet WHQS.
It is estimated that it will cost £166 million of capital investment to upgrade properties to the standard within five years but the council has only £49 million to meet the standard in the same period.
On current projections, it could take Flintshire Council around 26 years to meet the standard.
But Dee Housing, a registered social landlord (RSL) set up in the event of a transfer, would have the full £166 million available and could meet the standard within five years of transfer and have the resources to maintain all properties at the standard for thirty years.
The transfer option is not a new idea in Wales.
Residents in Bridgend were the first to vote for a transfer to a new landlord in 2002, followed by Monmouthshire, Rhondda Cynon Taf, Newport, Torfaen, Conwy, Gwynedd, Blaenau Gwent, Neath Port Talbot, Ceredigion and Merthyr Tydfil. But tenants in Wrexham, Swansea and Vale of Glamorgan voted to stay with the council.
In an interview with the Leader, Colin Everett, chief executive at Flintshire Council, and Clare Budden, head of housing, explained the process of the ballot and what either result will spell for the future.
Welsh Quality Housing Standard
WHQS dictates that every council home in Wales must be in a good state of repair, be safe and secure, be adequately heated, fuel efficient and well insulated, have up-to-date kitchen and bathrooms, be located in safe and attractive environments, be well managed and meet tenants' specific needs.
Currently Flintshire Council must make more than 36,000 upgrades including 6,300 kitchens, 6,050 bathrooms and 5,400 heating systems.
Mr Everett told the Leader: "It is a statement of fact that we cannot meet the standard by 2012 like most other councils.
"If the council could show to WAG how it could meet the WHQS by a reasonable date using its own resources then it wouldn’t have to ballot tenants.
"But having looked at all the options we could not make a case acceptable to the Welsh Assembly Government."
Ms Budden added: "There is the view that some councils haven't been spending as much money on their stock as they should have been.
"Some stock in some authorities is newer than others. We have got lots of high rise flats and elderly accommodation and some of the things we have to do to meet the standard is more expensive.
"Our stock is very old and much was built when only one person in the home had a car so now there is a problem with off-street parking.
"It is not the case that our council has badly spent its money in the past."
THE council has undertaken the largest ever consultation with tenants in Flintshire ahead of the ballot.
Since May 2010, there have been four newsletters to tenants, a postal survey of 2,000 tenants, 40 consultation events and a roadshow at 40 locations across the county.
Mr Everett said there had been a promising response from tenants.
He said: "More and more people are making personal contact and that is really encouraging."
Ms Budden added: "The roadshows were great because tenants got to ask us questions us and we got to understand what is most important to them.
"It's really people asking lots of questions to find out more to understand how it might affect them."
The council has adopted a neutral stance throughout and is seeking not to promote a particular result.
DEE Housing is a not-for-profit registered social landlord created in the event of a transfer.
Its shadow board is comprised of five tenants, five independent members and five elected members which the Leader can reveal are Independent councillors
Veronica Gay and Eric Owen, New Independent Dave Macfarlane, Conservative councillor Hilary Isherwood and Liberal Democrat councillor Robin Guest.
If tenants vote for a transfer, Dee Housing would be responsible for:
Ownership and management of all council homes and garages
Day-to-day repairs and maintenance services
Improvements to homes to bring them up to WHQS
Housing services staff
Repairing and letting empty homes
Estate management, tackling anti-social behaviour and enforcing conditions of tenancy
IF tenants vote for transfer they will have an assured tenancy agreement which, other than rents and service charges, cannot be changed without the personal agreement of the tenant.
Flintshire Council offers a secured tenancy agreement which is currently being re-drafted to be more robust.
Ms Budden: "In law there isn't a great deal of difference between an assured and secured tenancy.
"The Housing Ballot Project Board and the council will agree that the assured tenancy is as close as it possibly can be and that all tenants’ existing key rights are protected in the event of a transfer."
Mr Everett added: "Tenants rights will be broadly the same under both types of tenancy agreement. If there was a transfer, the County Council can insist in the legally-binding Transfer Agreement that new tenants of Dee Housing have a very similar tenancy agreement to that for transferring tenants. The main difference would be that new Dee Housing tenants would not have the Right to Buy but could purchase their homes through the Right to Acquire scheme”.
"The aim of the council is to make sure it can deliver a service that is as good as the top performing housing providers.
"That is a very similar offer that Dee Housing will make to tenants."
Transferring tenants would still have preserved right to buy.
No tenant would have to move home as a result of transfer.
Under current rules, tenants' entitlement to claim housing benefit would not be affected by transfer.
THE council must pay £6.2 million of tenants' rents to HM Treasury every year but Dee Housing would be allowed to keep this money in the event of a transfer.
The government will clear the council's housing debt - approximately £33 million - in the event of a transfer.
"If it's a no vote and tenants choose to stay with the council we will make the best of our resources," said Mr Everett.
"A no vote would mean physical property standards are not everything for tenants. For some, quality of service is as important.
"We will respect and work with tenants’ choice."
Mr Everett says WAG may ask the council to re-ballot tenants in the event of a no-vote as one option.
"If it's a no vote then WAG and the Council will wish to talk straight away," he said.
"As a believer in democracy I would expect all parties to respect the ballot outcome. I wouldn’t expect WAG to require a re-ballot."
Ms Budden added: "It would be like saying you voted but we didn't like the result so re-ballot."
THE ballot will be independently run by the Electoral Reform Ballot Services and is scheduled to take place in autumn.
It will run for 28 days and tenants can cast their vote by post, phone or email.
For advice on the ballot, call TACT@DOME on freephone 0800 919 994 or see www.domeconsultants.co.uk.
See full story in the Leader