Highland Housing Annual Assurance Statement approved but labour shortages threaten build programme

Highland Housing Annual Assurance Statement approved but labour shortages threaten build programme

Cllr Ben Thompson

Members of the Highland Council’s Housing and Property Committee have approved the Housing Annual Assurance Statement for 2021 and were briefed on potential delays to its home-building programme caused by labour shortages, price hikes and supply issues.

A regulatory requirement monitored by the Scottish Housing Regulator, the Housing Annual Assurance Statement focused on the key themes of statutory requirements, legislation, charter performance, customer satisfaction and engagement.

Highland’s 2021 Statement confirms that the council has achieved compliance with legislative duties and how it delivers essential services to tenants. It also emphasises the importance the council places on effective tenant participation.

The statement highlights there were no health & safety breaches in 2020- 21 resulting in intervention by the Health & Safety Executive.

The council confirmed its progress towards every tenant having fire alarms in place to meet the new standard by the February 2022 deadline.

Highland also complies with the Gas Safety Advice recommendations issued by the Scottish Housing Regulator to all social landlords last month.

Chair of the Housing and Property Committee, Cllr Ben Thompson, provided information on the remit of the committee in scrutinising the council’s housing performance when representatives from the Scottish Housing Regulator liaised with the local authority earlier this year.

Cllr Thompson said: “We very much welcome our ongoing engagement with the Scottish Housing Regulator. Our Assurance Statement will provide them with a helpful insight into the processes we follow and the priority we have on tenant safety and rent affordability.

“This year’s statement is again very positive and underpins the hard work of everyone in our housing service, particularly against the backdrop of lockdowns and the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.”

Having gained Committee approval, the Assurance Statement will now be submitted to the Scottish Housing Regulator.

Another report presented to the Committee on the capital programme and house-building programme detailed a multi-million-pound slippage caused by the ongoing challenges facing the construction industry.

The council had a budget of £60.2m in the last financial year for Housing Revenue Account capital. According to the latest figures, only £48.8m has been spent – a slippage of more than £11m.

Meanwhile, the mainstream Housing Revenue Account for 2021-22 continues to suffer following the backlog of work created in the first lockdown period.

This saw all capital work suspended until the lifting of restrictions on April 26.

Council officers said: “The pandemic continues to impact on the construction industry with projects facing supply chain issues, additional site measures, and delays to project timescales. There are other pressures in the industry that are exacerbating this position, both locally and nationally. These include the demand for construction materials outstripping supply, longer lead in times for deliveries, difficulty in filling some staff shortages, and sharp increases in the cost of certain materials.”

Despite the challenging backdrop, the council is sticking to its ambitious new build targets. It has completed 120 new units this financial year and expects to meet the full spend against budget.

Speaking ahead of Thursday’s meeting, Mr Thompson said: “In the current financial year, we are expecting around 830 new house completions, between the council and its housing partners.

“The year after that, we would hope to build another 500. So over this year and next a total of 1330 new homes should become available.”

Approved last November, the council’s Strategic Housing Investment Plan aims for 500 units per year, of which 70% will be rented and 30% for affordable purchase.

Mr Thompson said the council will continue to aim for that rate, despite Covid and Brexit continuing to have an impact on labour and materials.

“Those two factors have led to some important material costs increasing rapidly, particularly cement and timber,” he added.

“That is feeding through to the willingness of contractors to quote for projects, which in turn impacts on delivery of projects going forward.

“That said, the council remains committed to delivering its housing targets, to meet the need for new housing in Highland communities.”

Positive feedback from Highland Council tenants was highlighted at the meeting, with the improvement in some responses meaning the council is now above the national average in many indicators. 

Since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic in March 2020, the council has had to change the way it communicates with tenants and customers with a focus on digital communication.

The council developed the Highland Tenant Network, a private online platform, for tenants and customers to interact with officers and with each other and access up-to-date information.

Over the past twelve months the council has continued to carry out phone and online tenant surveys, hold online tenant meetings and Forums, and deliver informational webcasts on a variety of topical subjects, eg: Fire Safety, Mental Wellbeing, Energy Efficiency and Preventing Scams.

The Tenant Participation Team have also successfully trialled a new type of survey. The Rate your Place survey is based on the Place Standard and is designed to gather a holistic view of how people feel about living in a specific place.

This presents a visual interpretation of the issues most affecting our communities and has been very effective in reaching tenants and residents who are happy to work with us to set up residents’ groups and improve their estates.

The team’s interested tenant survey, completed in June this year, also asked tenants who had not participated online if they would like the Council to do so. Nearly 62% of those who responded said they would.

The council recognises that this is an opportunity that tenants would like, and the team is currently exploring options and working with external partners, to enable the local authority to provide digital training and support alongside a digital device lending library.

Members at the meeting noted the continuous improvement in tenant participation in Highland and the recognition of this by the Scottish Housing Regulator and also noted that housing are continuing to look at new ways to engage with its tenants and provide online training and support.

Cllr Ben Thompson said: “We asked tenants if we could provide them with support or training and loan them a suitable device, such as a laptop or tablet, with internet access would they like to join online meetings.

“The response has been very positive and we welcome the work which is already ongoing to gauge how this can be delivered and enhance tenant engagement.”

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