08:36 Tuesday 2nd April 2013
Bigger Breakfast Show
BBC Radio Cambridgeshire
[R]ONNIE BARBOUR: As the Government’s planned housing benefit changes come into place, a block of flats belonging to a social housing provider is sitting empty in Peterborough. That’s according to Councillor John Shearman for Park Ward. He says there are around 25 empty flats at Muir Housing’s Elizabeth Court. As a reminder of the changes, people receiving housing benefit must pay now more rent in the future of they have a spare room. John Shearman is on the line to explain a bit more. John, good morning to you.
JOHN SHEARMAN: Good morning Ronnie.
RONNIE BARBOUR: What can you tell us about Elizabeth Court, and who lives there?
JOHN SHEARMAN: Right. Elizabeth Court is just off the centre of Peterborough, near Central Park, 53 flats altogether, 25 of them empty. In Peterborough we have about 370 long term empty properties that our Empty Property Officer is trying to fill. So that 25 is quite a sizable proportion of that number. Back in February I checked out with the Council how many applicants we had in Peterborough wanting a one bedroom property. It’s a staggering 5,262 people. Now that’s likely to be reduced now the Council has introduced a new allocations policy. But this new bedroom tax will make the situation worse.
RONNIE BARBOUR: How long have the flats been sitting empty?
JOHN SHEARMAN: Well it was only recently a resident alerted me to this, and I checked out with another councillor in the ward, Councillor Kreling, and she informed me that they’ve been running the complex down since 2009. Now I understand the idea is to eventually refurbish the flats, or knock the whole lot down and build another complex. But given the housing shortage in Peterborough at the moment, it would seem to me that they should be finding a way to use those flats immediately, even if they offered them on a short term contract.
RONNIE BARBOUR: I was just going to ask you what you’d like to see instead. It would just be to people for short term rental to get them through current times.
JOHN SHEARMAN: Yes. I understand that if in their view, and the complex has been there some little while, if in their view the individual flats need to be updated, brought up to standard or whatever, then I can respect that. But we’ve got this crisis of a lot of people wanting one bedroom properties, and with the introduction of the bedroom tax, the housing associations in Peterborough reckon that there are going to be 1,500 people affected by the changes in the benefits given to people in council housing association accommodation, and of those 1,500 people, I don’t have the figures but I’m sure that many of them actually want a one bedroom property. Let’s get these flats that are empty used on a temporary basis. It could be a short term let of three or four years, let the whole thing in terms of the bedroom tax bed down a little bit. Sorry about the pun there.
RONNIE BARBOUR: Yes it’s an interesting one. Stay where you are John, because on another line is Sam Scott, who’s Director of Housing at Muir Housing Group itself. Sam, good morning to you.
SAM SCOTT: Good morning.
RONNIE BARBOUR: Your reaction to what John had to say there then Sam.
SAM SCOTT: Well, Elizabeth Court in Peterborough, just to make it clear, is predominantly a sheltered scheme for the elderly, the over-55s. There’s 52 flats on the scheme, and 35 of those are designated for elderly residents. And the majority of the empty properties there are sheltered bed-sits, not one bedroom flats.
RONNIE BARBOUR: So why are they lying empty?
SAM SCOTT: They’re lying empty for a number of reasons. We have struggled to let sheltered bed-sits at Elizabeth Court for many years. And in 2009, 2010 we made a conscious decision to commence a formal review of the scheme with residents to protect the long term future of it.
RONNIE BARBOUR: So what are your plans for it as it stands at the moment?
SAM SCOTT: Well the plans were .. we work with our residents very closely, and our preferred option up until about nine twelve months ago was to demolish part of Elizabeth Court and redevelop it and build houses, and to move existing residents into two refurbished blocks. But I think with the Welfare Reform changes that came in last year, as John quite rightly stated, there’s going to be an increased demand for smaller units. We are currently reviewing that original decisions, that preferred option.
RONNIE BARBOUR: So there could be an option that you could look at that seriously then?
SAM SCOTT: Absolutely. Yes. We’re due to meet with Peterborough City Council hopefully in the next three or four weeks to discuss that possibility, hopefully to respond to the local authority’s current housing needs. Again as John quite rightly said there are a number of people on the waiting list for one bedroom or smaller accommodation. Whether bed-sit accommodation will fulfil their needs is something we need to discuss with Peterborough City Council.
RONNIE BARBOUR: Sam Scott, Director of Housing at Muir Housing Group, and befrore that you heard John Shearman as well.