Tagged: Durham County Council

Housing : Pressure to combat ‘student ghettos’ in Durham

A council is facing renewed calls to combat “student ghettos”, after the last local resident of a city centre street described her life as “hell on earth”.

Jackie Levitas, the only remaining non-student on Waddington Street, Durham, said Durham County Council had concentrated on the county’s villages to the neglect of the city – and must decide whether it really “cares” about Durham.

“It’s your duty. People have fled the city. You’ve got to encourage them to come back.

“You must think about how to improve Durham – every decision taken should be an improvement,” the 78-year-old poet said.

Her calls were echoed by Durham City MP Roberta Blackman-Woods, who called the situation “dreadful” and said it left her “almost beyond despair”.

Roger Cornwell, chairman of the City of Durham Trust conservation society, said: “Jackie’s is an extreme form of what’s been going on.

“Her street is treated as part of a student hall of residence. She’s treated as an interloper. The street is totally dead when you get to the (university) vacation.”

 Stuart Timmiss, the council’s head of planning and assets, said it acknowledged the scale of student numbers could create tensions and it recognised the importance of Durham University to Durham.

“Ensuring a balance in respect of these issues is very difficult,” he added.

“We recognise that in Waddington Street and the adjoining streets almost all of the properties are in student use, largely down to how the market has operated over a period of time.

“We have policies in place which mean future applications for student housing developments take all of the above aspects into account and do not have an adverse impact on local communities.”

While first year students at Durham University live in college, many second and third years – plus postgraduates – live in formerly private homes that have been converted into houses in multiple occupation (HMOs) for students.

 Recently, a string of large-scale schemes for purpose-built student accommodation have come forward. Planning permission has been granted for more than 2,000 more student beds and several hundred more are in the pipeline, even though the university expects to expand by only 359 students by 2019-20.

The council is under pressure to introduce an Article 4 direction, which would force developers to apply for planning permission to convert a house into an HMO, and produce a comprehensive student accommodation strategy, a previous attempt having been rejected by a planning inspector.

Professor Graham Towl, the university’s pro-vice-chancellor, said:

We are keen to work with the community to ensure there is a positive environment for all who live and work in Durham and Stockton-on-Tees and we welcome open dialogue.”

Source –  Durham Times, 15 May 2015

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Hungry ‘freegan’ in court for taking discarded out-of-date food from Tesco

A man who ended up in court after he and his wife took worthless discarded food from a supermarket yard has revealed his desperate plight.

Paul Barker was seen sifting through out-of-date groceries at the back of Tesco in Hetton-le-Hole, County Durham,  when the couple were caught on CCTV at midnight on January 5, Sunderland magistrates heard.

But after a judge said he could impose no financial penalty on the 39-year-old for his actions, Barker described his existence as “not really living at all.”

Prosecutor Jeanette Smith said Barker and wife Kerry, 29, were seen in the rear compound of the Hetton Road Tesco Express store, removing a pallet of food.

 When police arrived, Barker told officers the pair were hungry and they knew there would be waste food at the store.

However, Mrs Smith added that, although the items were to be thrown out, they were in a secure compound, adding that Tesco’s policy is not to give away discarded food.

Barker, of Caroline Street, Hetton admitted theft. He already has £300 in outstanding fines owing to the court.

Angus Westgarth, defending, said:

“At the time, they hadn’t had benefits or any money since December. It just seems that the state has failed them.

“They were told they would not get any benefits for a year from December. He is having to duck and dive to feed himself. Without a crystal ball I can see that this will continue to happen.

“He is trying to survive however he can. I think they call this way of living ‘freeganism’. They take waste food and consume it.

“They are managing to live as, I think, Social Services are paying some money for housing. Their children are living with grandparents because of the situation.”

District Judge Roger Elsey said:

“How are they expected to live?

“It seems to me the appropriate punishment for taking food which is of no value is an absolute discharge. I clearly can’t make any financial order.”

> Well done that judge !

Barker’s wife Kerry is due before magistrates this week, charged with the same offence.

Tesco Express in Hetton Road.

Waste food is stored  in the secure compound at the rear.

Tesco Express in Hetton Road.

Speaking at home after the case, Barker said:

“I do it because I need food, I’m not nicking for profit like most.

“You have to be careful with fish, but most out-of-date food you can eat, but things like bread might be slightly harder.

“They should give it to people who need it. But they don’t care, it’s just money making.

“It’s wrong, it’s horrible, it’s like not really living at all. It’s like being in jail. I’m banned from all the shops.”

Barker said he broke his back in a fall while working as a scaffolder and is out of work. He also used to work with young offenders after he got out of rehab, where he was treated for his addiction to crack and heroin, which he used for a third of his life.

He added that his wife has a degree in sociology, but was forced to give up her job at Durham County Council five years ago due to depression. The couple’s children, a four-year-old boy and two-year-old daughter are living with grandparents in Cumbria.

Tesco said that they do donate surplus food to people in need, through charity Fareshare and also redistribute food donated by their customers, to the Trussell Trust.

“Working with the charity FareShare, we have already distributed over three million meals worth of surplus food to people in need and we are working on ways to make sure more surplus food is donated in this way,” a spokesman said.

“It is not safe to take food from bins and that is why we work with charities to redistribute surplus food that is safe to eat to people who need it.

Source – Sunderland Echo, 12 May 2015

Durham County Council sells its last 18,400 homes to not-for-profit housing group

Thousands of former council tenants have a new landlord today after the North-East’s largest local authority sold its last 18,400 homes to a new independent group.

Durham County Council sealed the £114m deal with the newly formed, not-for-profit County Durham Housing Group (CDHG) late last night (Monday).

Supporters say the historic transfer will pave the way for £800m of investment in the homes over the next 30 years and the £80m construction of 700 new properties within the next seven, plus the cancellation of the council’s remaining housing debt of £130m.

CDHG chief executive Bill Fullen said there was an opportunity to create something “really significant” in County Durham, while council chief executive George Garlick said communities across the county would be regenerated.

CDHG now owns and manages 18,400 homes across the former Wear Valley, Easington and Durham City districts.

It comprises three new landlords, or Community Benefit Societies Dale and Valley Homes and East Durham Homes, previously Arms-Length Management Organisations (Almos) responsible for managing council-owned houses, and Durham City Homes, previously an in-house council service.

 The switch was agreed following a ballot of the 22,000 tenants last year. Just over half voted, with 82 per cent of those supporting the transfer.

It went ahead despite delays and a government deadline having been missed.

Sites for the new homes have been identified, mostly around existing estates, but details have not yet been released.

Mr Fullen said:

“The results of last summer’s ballot told us that tenants wanted to see change and that’s exactly as a group what we set out to achieve.

“I want people to say that they are proud to call Durham home and that doesn’t just come from bricks and mortar.

“It’s about improving lives beyond the garden gate and I’m confident that by working with Dale and Valley Homes, Durham City Homes and East Durham Homes we can achieve this together.”

Mr Garlick added:

“The completion of the transfer allows for millions of pounds to be invested in current social housing as well as building new homes, helping to regenerate communities across the county.”

For more information, visit countydurhamhousinggroup.co.uk

Durham City Homes can now be contacted via durhamcityhomes.co.uk, 0800-068-0013 or email: admin@durhamcityhomes.co.uk

Dale and Valley Homes’ and East Durham Homes’ contact details remain unchanged.

Council houses in other areas of the county have already been transferred to landlords Cestria Community Housing, Derwentside Homes, Livin and Teesdale Housing Association.

Last night’s (Monday) deal was signed hours before the Conservatives pledged to extend the right-to-buy to 1.3m housing association tenants.

Source – Northern Echo, 14 Apr 2015

North East Councils told to be less heavy handed over tax debt amid claims families are being left in fear

Councils have defended their use of bailiffs after a charity said “heavy handed” debt collection practices were leaving families – and more specifically children – in fear.

The Children’s Society said North-East local authorities had engaged bailiffs an estimated 51,800 times last year to recover council tax debts.

Meanwhile, Durham County Council said it had referred 22,306 council tax warrants to bailiffs, although this was over the last three years rather than a 12 month period.

Bailiffs, typically employed by private companies, have the power to enforce non-payment of debts by seizing property from homeowners.

The Children’s Society said in just 14 days families could go from missing a council tax payment to facing court proceedings and action from bailiffs.

It described incidents in which children had answered the phone to a debt collector or been present when they had called in person, leaving them frightened and unable to sleep as a result.

One mother, who was among 4,500 parents surveyed for the charity’s research, said: “My children knew mummy was stressed and there were strange people at the door wanting things.

“Most of the furniture got taken at that point.”

 The report published by charity said that more than one in ten families in the UK had experienced council tax debt.

It said three quarters of parents in this position had not been given help to find independent advice and local authorities were “rushing to penalise struggling families by demanding sudden, unrealistic” payments.

Matthew Reed, the charity’s chief executive, said:

“Far too many families are failed by their council when they fall behind with their council tax.”

Ian Fergusson, Durham County Council’s revenue and benefits manager, said:

“The use of bailiffs is always a last resort and the bailiffs that we use are highly trained to be respectful of council tax payers and their families at all times.

“We would encourage anyone who is experiencing financial difficulties to contact us to discuss the issues they are facing.”

 A spokeswoman for Darlington Borough Council added:
“The council has a contracted enforcement agency to collect unrecovered council tax debts, but will only refer debts to them when all other methods of recovery have been exhausted.

“In every case the council will always try to come to an arrangement first.

“Our enforcement agents have a strict code of conduct that does not allow any of their staff to discuss a debt with a child.”

Source – Northern Echo, 26 Mar 2015

Newcastle East constituency one of the worst places in the UK for voters falling off the electoral register

A Newcastle constituency is one of the worst in the UK for voters falling off the electoral register.

In the last year more than 9,000 potential voters have dropped off the list in Newcastle East, with only Cardiff Central and Liverpool Riverside having worse figures.

A spokesman for the BiteTheBallot campaign group which is fighting to get more people on the electoral register before the May general election said the figure was “an absolute disgrace”.

The controversial switch from household to individual electoral registration has caused a great deal of problems for local authorities whose electoral registration officers are continuing to run into problems with their electoral management software systems.

The number of people on the register has dropped yet the Government and the Electoral Commission don’t have a plan to deal with this and it’s extremely worrying,” said the BiteTheBallot spokesman.

It was revealed last week that local authorities had been given an extra £20m in a bid to solve this.

However the spokesman was dismissive of the move, saying it would be spent mostly on sending out letters.

He said: “It’s about getting people into the community to engage with them and get them interested in politics and registering for the vote.”

The spokesman revealed the group has a Community Engagement Officer, Megan Patterson, who is working with Durham County Council and visiting local schools, sixth form colleges and youth clubs.

“She is doing stellar work in getting people registered. It’s labour intensive but it works.”

According to the Office for National Statistics there were 58,557 people registered to vote in Newcastle East as of December 2014.

This is an 13.8% decrease on the 67,945 people who were registered to vote in the constituency on December 1, 2013, the third biggest decrease for any of the 591 parliamentary constituencies in England Wales and Northern Ireland.

The ONS estimates there are 84,394 people aged 18 and above living in Newcastle East which means that only 69.4% of the potentially eligible voting population is in fact registered to vote.

However this percentage is likely to be higher as the population estimates also include people who are not eligible to vote such as those born overseas.

Ironically not far behind Newcastle in numbers falling off the electoral register is City of Durham where the BiteTheBallot community engagement officer is working.

It has seen an 11.5% drop in the year from 73,036 to 64,614.

Across the whole of Tyne and Wear, Northumberland and County Durham there was a fall of 3.8% in the number of people registered to vote with declines in all but one constituency.

Source – Sunday Sun, 01 Mar 2015

Community action : Horden residents plan to take over running of dozens of empty homes

Residents of a former colliery community plan to take over the running of dozens of boarded up homes themselves.

A total of 160 homes out of 361 properties managed by Accent housing association stand empty in East Durham – 130 of them in Horden, near Peterlee.

They have become a magnet for antisocial behaviour, fly-tipping and rat infestations.

Horden residents decided to act after Accent announced it was seeking a “programme of disposal”, with a Government minister suggesting last week they could be flogged off for as little as £1 each.

Accent has blamed the controversial bedroom tax for contributing to the low demand for the homes, but residents argue it is the failure to invest in the properties which has made them undesirable.

At a packed meeting convened by the Horden Colliery Residents’ Association (HCRA)  on February 18 backed the formation of a community association with the view to acquiring and renovating the properties.

HCRA spokesman John Barnett said:

“Over the many years Accent have invested little or nothing on the properties.

“Although Accent claims the bedroom tax is to blame, we believe it is the lack of investment and the state they have allowed the streets to degrade into that has put people off. The appearance of all the boarded up houses is devastating.”

“What we want to do as a community is tackle the environmental aspects and make streets more attractive and then renovate those properties.”

Residents have approached community housing expert Jo Gooding to help them examine the options.

Accent is hoping many of the homes will be purchased by would-be homeowners under a homesteading initiative, subject to approval by the Homes and Communities Association.

Claire Stone, Accent’s director of communities and assets, said:

“We have worked really hard to find the best possible solution for these homes and have had a dedicated project team in place with Durham County Council and the Homes and Communities Agency to explore all the options.

“We had hoped that other social landlords with stock in the area would take them on, but unfortunately this has not proved possible.

“We have therefore reluctantly decided to dispose of the properties as they fall empty. We will continue to work closely with residents and local representatives to ensure that they are fully supported throughout this process.”
Source – Northern Echo,  20 Feb 2015

‘£1 homes’ to go on sale in Horden and Blackhall

A housing  group has announced it is to sell a number of empty homes which a debate in Parliament heard could go for as little as £1.

Accent housing association, which manages 361 social housing properties in Horden and Blackhall, says it has reluctantly taken the decision after exhausting all other avenues including approaching other landlords.

It is seeking consent from the Homes and Communities Agency to dispose of 30 empty homes in Blackhall and 130 in Horden.

Claire Stone, Accent’s director of communities and assets, said:

“We have worked really hard to find the best possible solution for these homes and have had a dedicated project team in place with Durham County Council and the Homes and Communities Agency to explore all the options.

“We had hoped that other social landlords with stock in the area would take them on, but unfortunately this has not proved possible.

“We have therefore reluctantly decided to dispose of the properties as they fall empty.

“We will continue to work closely with residents and local representatives to ensure that they are fully supported throughout this process.”

During a debate in the House of Commons last week called by Easington MP Grahame Morris, the Government suggested such homes could be sold off for as little as £1 with new owners being required to renovate them.

But Mr Morris said there was a feeling Accent was abandoning the community and said they should not be allowed to walk away from their responsibilities.

Ms Stone added:

“As a responsible social landlord, we need to ensure that our stock is fit for the future.

“We are under an obligation to secure the best possible value for money for all of our residents into the future and our robust asset management strategy has identified that these properties are not sustainable for us as a social landlord.”

Accent says it has invested £8.6m in the area but would have to spend a further £7m to bring the houses up to the required standard.

The social housing provider says it intends to sell more of its 321 properties in Blackhall and Horden as they become vacant.

It says it is visiting all residents in the areas affected.

So far, more than 130 households have requested a move while those who wish to will remain Accent tenants.

Source –  Hartlepool Mail,  18 Feb 2015

Easington MP warns empty County Durham homes blight former mining communities

Some of the run down and boarded up houses in the Horden area
Some of the run down and boarded up houses in the Horden area

Nearly 200 homes in east Durham communities have been left empty and boarded up – encouraging crime and damaging the quality of life for their neighbours, an MP has warned.

Easington MP Grahame Morris urged ministers to intervene as he warned that large numbers of homes in Horden and Blackhall, in his constituency, had been allowed to fall into disrepair.

Speaking in the House of Commons, he said social housing provider Accent had allowed properties to fall into disrepair through lack of investment and by failing to vet new tenants properly.

 

Mr Morris also warned that changes to housing benefit had meant properties went empty, because they had two bedrooms but were occupied by single people – who had become liable for the bedroom tax.

He won a promise from Local Government Minister Brandon Lewis to look into the problems faced by the villages.

The minister also said he would ask the Homes and Communities Agency, the official body which regulates social housing providers, to meet Mr Morris to discuss his concerns.

Leading the debate, Mr Morris said the villages’ problems followed the closure of Horden colliery in 1987, which among other things led to a decline in the local population over time.

 

Accent managed 361 properties in Horden and Blackhall, Mr Morris said. But 130 of its 220 homes in Horden were currently empty, as well as 30 of the 141 properties in Blackhall.

He warned: “The problem is that, as properties become empty, Accent no longer seeks to let them as homes. Instead, vacant properties are being boarded up, which are an eyesore and a drain on the community.

“It is clear, from walking around the area, that properties have gradually fallen into a state of disrepair and now require substantial work.”

 

Proposals to improve the homes had been scrapped following the introduction of the bedroom tax, he said, because the only way to ensure the homes were occupied had been to rent them to single people, and this was no longer possible.

But Mr Morris said that local residents complained Accent had not taken good care of its housing stock for many years before the bedroom tax was introduced.

He said: “It seems to have total disregard for the community in terms of vetting potential tenants.

“The residents’ groups, who have worked closely with the local authority and the police, have been out litter picking, clearing up fly-tipping and identifying problems to report to the local authority. However, the residents say that their efforts to clean and improve the area have been undermined.”

The result had been crime, antisocial behaviour, fly-tipping and rat infestations in the empty homes.

 

The MP urged the minister to ensure the Government invested in the village to improve the housing stock, to replace high-density colliery housing with more modern housing.

One option could be an approach known as “homesteading”, in which homes are sold at a substantial discount to buyers who then spend money to improve the properties, he said.

However, Mr Morris said some public funding would be needed. He told the minister: “I understand that we are in a time of austerity, but if there is a political will, we can overcome any barriers on finance.”

Mr Lewis said:

“He painted a sobering picture of a town struggling with empty homes and the damaging impact that that can have on the wider community. Horden is in one of the most beautiful corners of the country. I appreciate that, having visited the north-east in the past few weeks.”

He added:

“We need to see beautiful places such as Horden thriving, but we must also ensure that we fix the broken market so that they can deliver on that.”

Claire Stone, Accent’s director of communities and assets, said:

“We have worked really hard to find the best possible solution for these homes and have had a dedicated project team in place with Durham County Council and the Homes and Communities Agency to explore all the options. We had hoped that other social landlords with stock in the area would take them on, but unfortunately this has not proved possible. We have therefore reluctantly decided to dispose of the properties as they fall empty. We will continue to work closely with residents and local representatives to ensure that they are fully supported throughout this process.

“As a responsible social landlord, we need to ensure that our stock is fit for the future. We are under an obligation to secure the best possible value for money for all of our residents into the future and our robust asset management strategy has identified that these properties are not sustainable for us as a social landlord.”

Newcastle Evening Chronicle, 12 Feb 2015

Durham council cabinet backs 1.99 per cent council tax rise

Labour councillors have set themselves on a collision course with Tory ministers after agreeing to raise council tax by the most possible without triggering a referendum.

This week  Communities Secretary Eric Pickles challenged Durham County Council to avoid tax hikes and protect frontline services by selling off its £62m of “surplus assets”.

Hours later, the authority’s cabinet ignored the suggestion and backed a 1.99 per cent council tax rise – just under the two per cent that would have prompted a local referendum.

Assuming a full council meeting rubberstamps the proposal later this month , that will mean Band A householders, 59 per cent of those in County Durham, having to pay 33p a week extra for their council services in 2015-16.

The Government has offered Durham a grant worth £2.18m if it freezes council tax, but that would still leave a £1.2m shortfall from the £3.398m the tax hike is expected to generate – at a time when the cash-strapped council faces unprecedented cuts of £250m, including £16.3m over the next year.

Deputy leader Alan Napier said raising council tax had been a very difficult decision to take at a time of national austerity, pay squeezes and when household budgets are under pressure.

However, accepting the council tax freeze grant was not affordable or in the best interests of taxpayers, he said.

“This is a sensible and prudent budget. We are protecting frontline services as best we can,” he said.

The council only learned how much money it will get from central government last Wednesday (February 4).

The final settlement brought some unexpected good news – an extra £966,000 for welfare help and social care. But Cllr Napier said this was still £1m less than for this year.

The overall revenue budget totals £409.9m. A capital programme of £366m to 2017 is also included, with £93m for building new and improving existing schools, £101m for maintaining and improving roads, £18m for broadband, £14m for industrial estates and £8m for town centres.

About £9m from the council’s reserves would be spent on supporting adult social care, staff pay increases and making other savings.

Councillors would see no increase in their allowance and their mileage rate cut to 45p.

By next March, the council expects to have cut 1,950 jobs from its 2010 workforce.

Council house and garage rents are set to increase by an average of 2.2 per cent.

Labour wants to continue its pioneering Local Council Tax Support Scheme, meaning no working-age council tax benefit claimant has their payment reduced.

Conservative and Liberal Democrat groups want council tax frozen. Final decisions will be made on Wednesday, February 25.

Source – Durham Times,  12 Feb 2015

Government blames North East councils for cuts of £240 million

Ministers have accused North East councils of sitting on unused land and property which they could sell to protect services.

But local authorities facing massive spending cuts of more than £240 million ridiculed the claims – and pointed out that there are strict rules preventing them from selling the land to fund services.

And the comments provoked an angry reaction from Labour, who accused the Government of imposing higher cuts on urban councils in the North East than wealthy parts of the country.

Ministers launched the attack on councils which are reducing services and raising council tax, claiming that they had nobody to blame but themselves.

The Association of North East Councils has warned that crucial services such as care for vulnerable children are in danger of collapse as massive cuts in council funding wipe almost quarter of a billion pounds off budgets across the North East this year.

It says the true impact of Government spending cuts has been hidden because authorities have succeeded in “raiding” other services and diverting funds where they are needed most – but they have reached a point where this just won’t be possible any more.

But Local Government Secretary Eric Pickles issued a statement claiming councils have large sources of untapped revenue including money held in reserve, assets such as property or land, and council tax arrears which have gone uncollected.

And his department published a league table highlighting the worst offenders, with County Durham named as one of the authorities with high levels of surplus assets. The authority is sitting on assets worth £62 million, according to the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG).

The department also named Gateshead as an authority with high levels of surplus assets, worth £49 million.

Government figures also showed that Northumberland council had reserves of £96.4 million while Newcastle-upon-Tyne had reserves of £78.9 million.

Mr Pickles said:

“Reserves have rocketed up in the past few years and councils could be making better use of assets to keep taxes down and protect frontline services, while at the same time doing more to stop the billions they are losing to fraud and collecting more Council Tax arrears.”

But the claims were dismissed by Councillor Alan Napier, Deputy Leader of Durham County Council, who said:

“We do have surplus assets of £62 million which includes both land and buildings, including former school sites.

“Most of these sites are either being sold, up for sale or in the process of being put up for sale. When sold, our hands are tied as to what we can spend the money on as the receipts are ring-fenced and can only be spent on new capital items such as buildings, vehicles or infrastructure.

“I would have expected Mr Pickles to know that receipts from surplus assets cannot be used to reduce council tax or protect front line services ”

Gateshead Council’s strategic director of corporate services and governance, Mike Barker, said

“£41m illion of assets which have been classed as ‘surplus to requirements’ actually relate to land which has already been contractually committed towards building much needed, good quality, affordable housing across the borough.

“The development of this land is already underway on sites at Deckham, Bensham and Saltwell, and Birtley. Over the next 15 years, the joint venture partnership between ourselves, Galliford Try and Home Group will build thousands of new homes on 19 different sites across Gateshead; bringing jobs, investment, and regeneration to many areas.”

The devastating impact of Government cuts on council services was confirmed in a report by the National Audit Office late last year, which warned that authorities were reaching a point where they couldn’t cope.

It said:

“While local authorities have maintained financial resilience overall, some – particularly among metropolitan districts – are now showing persistent signs of financial stress, such as unplanned in-year reductions in service spend.

“Looking to the future, there is increased uncertainty about how local authorities can manage further possible falls in income.”

Source – Newcastle Evening Chronicle,  11 Feb 2015