A NEAR £80 rent hike for New Forest District Council tenants has been criticised by opposition councillors for coming at the “wrong time” amid the pandemic.
The proposal, which will go to the Conservative-ruling cabinet next month, would increase social housing rents by £1.51 a week from April, which equates to an extra £78.52 over a year.
It was backed by NFDC’s housing overview and scrutiny panel at a meeting last week, despite arguments against by Liberal Democrat councillors Caroline Rackham and Jack Davies.
If signed off, it means average weekly rents for social tenants will stand at £102.80. Councillors said future annual rent rises of around 1%, on top of the Consumer Price Index, were on the cards for the next three years.
Cllr Davies, Lib Dem housing spokesman, called for a freeze in rents with a review next year as he said many tenants had been affected by the pandemic, and even those on furlough were struggling to afford to live.
He said: “I just feel we should be doing whatever we can to help people during the pandemic. And raising social rents on people who are generally the most vulnerable that we have in the district is the wrong move at the wrong time.”
Cllr Rackham said she knew of people who were “facing really bad poverty” and she could not see why NFDC was “hammering people at a time when we should be helping them”.
NFDC’s cabinet member for housing, Cllr Jill Cleary, pointed out the authority had not been allowed to increase rents for four years by the government, and over that period the council’s housing budget had been affected “detrimentally”.
The panel heard the rents had risen 2.7% last year, and government guidelines suggested the 1.5% figure.
Cllr Cleary stressed the rise will help pay for a programme surveying the state of the council’s social housing stock, many of which have old kitchens and bathrooms that need updating.
She was supported by fellow Tory Cllr Christine Ward who said: “Not everybody in social housing is in the situation where they cannot afford the raise.
“We have a lot of people that are having difficulties at the moment and those in difficulty do get extra help. But there a lot of people in social housing who can well afford this modest increase.”
Cllr Anne Sevier agreed a small rise was “not unreasonable”, adding: “As a council we need to look after our properties as well as our tenants.”
In addition, Cllr Cleary said, £200,000 has been allocated to replace ICT systems in the housing department and pay three surveyors £150,000 to assess the housing stock.
The council’s housing capital budget is just over £20m for the coming year, with £13m set to be invested in new housing and just over £6m for planned improvement and maintenance work to existing properties.
A report outlined the council’s housing strategy targets the delivery of at least 600 new homes by 2026, which may require “limited borrowing” of up to £9m over the next two years.
The panel also backed increasing service charges by 0.5% but froze garage rents.