Collecting unpaid rent remains a significant challenge for Flintshire Council despite a reduction in arrears, officers have said.
The total amount of money owed to the local authority by tenants stands at £2.14 million, which represents an improvement of £80,000 compared to the end of last year.
However, politicians have been told that Universal Credit is having a major impact on debt levels, as it is given in arrears and makes residents directly responsible for paying rent.
David Barnes, lead officer for revenue collection, said 496 out of the 562 tenants in Flintshire who receive the new benefit are in debt to the council.
The average amount owed by those on Universal Credit is £1,357 in comparison to around £214 for people on the old housing benefit system.
He told today’s community and enterprise scrutiny committee meeting that staff were increasingly having to intervene early to stop arrears from escalating.
Mr Barnes said: “We’re certainly not out of the woods in terms of rental collection yet and certainly not in the climate of Universal Credit.
“£2.14 million is certainly not where we want to be, but there is a glimmer of hope in that we are slowly beginning to turn a corner.
“There’s sometimes no easy solution and evictions are not the solution we’re always looking for.
“The early intervention we’re doing through the Housing Intervention Team is now starting to pay dividends.
“It’s a team of four officers whose priority is early intervention for people who owe a low amount of arrears to prevent it from becoming a high amount of arrears.
“It’s one of those necessary things we have to put in place as the reality is that if we don’t intervene then rent arrears would just increase.”
Cllr David Wisinger (Lab) described the amount owed as ‘shocking’.
He said he felt the council was doing everything it could to reduce the figure, but asked whether an external company could be used to help. He said:
“I don’t think we can do a lot more, but when you’re given this piece of paper and look at these figures they’re shocking.
“You can see why any private landlord wouldn’t entertain anyone on benefits.
“Is it because they can’t pay, they won’t pay or are they irresponsible?
“I’d like to know why the figures are like this.
“Have you gone through the idea of having an outside agent to collect the rent?”
However, the council’s cabinet member for housing said the tactics used by an outside bailiff company previously employed by the authority had been heavily criticised.
Cllr Bernie Attridge (Lab) also said there had been cases where tenants had been taken to court to recover money, but the amount awarded could be as little £3 per week. He said:
“When we had private landlords I used to have horror stories of complaints about the alleged tactics they used to collect rent.
“It was the council’s decision to bring the bailiff system back in house.
“Under my socialist principles the last thing we want to be doing is be throwing people out.
“It’s zero tolerance for the ones who refuse and won’t engage, but give all the help we can to those that need it.”
By Liam Randall – Local Democracy Reporter (more here).