Three quarters of Hastings’ housing enforcement team, plus supporting admin roles, face the axe in the New Year unless its selective licensing scheme is renewed.
Despite these jobs hanging in the balance, the council has been waiting seven months to hear back from central government as to whether its application for renewal will be given the green light.
The secretary of state for housing has to individually approve council applications for the majority of selective licensing scheme renewals and the process is supposed to take eight weeks, but a renewal proposal put forward on 24 April has still not been answered.
Hastings has patched together a package to guarantee jobs beyond the end of the scheme, which officially ended on 25 October, but redundancy notices will have to be handed out by 8 January to comply with the notice periods involved.
The £2.5m self-financing, five-year scheme, supported 13 enforcement officers and six admin staff, and unless it is renewed the team will be cut to just three enforcement officers.
Housing renewal manager Matthew China said: “You can imagine the difference that makes in the service we can provide. One of my jobs at the moment is trying to prioritise what that means for complaints, because the remaining staff, there's just no way they could respond to the level of complaints that we get.
“We're getting almost a thousand requests for service every year and between three people that's just not doable.”
Not renewing the scheme, China warned, would lead to months of delays to investigate housing complaints, less enforcement, put homeless clients at risk, and threatened a “race to the bottom” in housing standards by rogue landlords.
It would also mean the council would be unable to meet targets set by the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government to inspect high-rise buildings for unsafe cladding post-Grenfell.
Already four members of the team are leaving due to the ongoing job uncertainty – including China himself – when officers with their skillset are in short supply and difficult to replace.
Hastings currently has around 12,000 households renting privately. The last scheme covered seven wards and 8,200 properties, and was introduced to tackle antisocial behaviour. Since it’s launch in 2015 the council said the scheme has reduced ASB by 44.7% and driven up housing standards.
The new scheme being proposed would cover six wards, and will be aimed at improving housing conditions. Inspections carried out under licensing found that 67% failed decent home standards, and the council argued a further scheme is needed to support improvements.
Complicating matters, a row has broken out locally over the issue after it was revealed in a council meeting in October that the conservative MP Sally-Ann Hart had advised the secretary of state not to renew the scheme.
Cabinet member for housing Andy Batsford told the meeting that Hart had said this was due to concerns raised by two local conservative councillors who were landlords, licensed under the previous scheme.
Hart was subsequently reported in a local paper saying that the scheme would cost an extra £58 a month. This is incorrect as it will cost just under £12 a month, or less than £5 a month for properties renewing. The report also said Hart had been advised by a representative from the Residential Landlords Association and other landlords on the All-Party Parliamentary Group for homelessness that selective licensing created a “postcode lottery”.
In the report, Hart argued that the council should stick to using the enforcement powers they already have.
Following a Freedom of Information request, EHN Extra was able to see the reply Hart sent to Batsford in the summer, when he invited her to support the renewal. She mentions a councilor Robert Lee but the other councillor is redacted.
Hart told Batsford that concerns were raised with “various ‘good’ landlords complaining about the cost of licenses and their anger that they were being affected by blanket licensing as well as the ‘rogue’ landlords”.
She added: “I raised these concerns with the secretary of state and could not therefore subsequently endorse Hastings Borough Council’s selective licensing application”.
Extra approached Hart to clarify the cost of the scheme and arguments made around its potential impact on homelessness, and whether local constituents that rented had raised any concerns, but she declined to comment.