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Waverley Borough Council Committee System - Committee Document

Meeting of the Executive held on 30/09/2003
Summary of Findings

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The review findings are summarised below. The targets in brackets refer to those set out in the relevant Improvement Plans at Annexes 2 – 6, showing the proposed action to address the findings. Hard copies of the full reports have been placed in the Members’ Room. Additional copies or electronic versions can be obtained from Margaret Wright, Housing Policy & Performance Manager on 01483-523453 or e-mail: mwright@waverley.gov.uk.

1. Overview: findings relevant to all services

(a) Good progress has been made towards ensuring that housing services respond to the diverse needs of customers. However, some further enhancements are required:
The Language Line interpretation and translation facility which can currently only be accessed via housing staff should be made available corporately in order to improve access to services at all Waverley offices.
A corporate policy is needed on the publication of documents in large print, Braille or producing audio tapes to ensure there is a consistent approach.
The Mental Health Support Worker and Domestic Violence Outreach Worker provide valuable advice and support to tenants and temporary accommodation residents. These services could be further enhanced by ensuring there is greater clarity about their scope among housing staff and by improving liaison and referral arrangements.
In order to help sustain the tenancies or licences to occupy of customers with special needs or who are vulnerable, liaison and referral arrangements with Surrey Social Services, health services and other relevant agencies need to be developed or improved. (b) Although some guidance is available and staff have received training on aggression at work more detailed procedures are needed corporately on the action to be taken, particularly by reception staff, if a customer becomes aggressive. Risk assessments for all parts of the housing service need to be completed and appropriate procedures developed. A consistent approach for housing staff visiting customers should be agreed and implemented. All staff need to have access to information regarding potentially aggressive customers. (c) The lack of service level agreements between Housing and other Council Departments providing support and other services may cause confusion and result in inconsistent working practices. Problems may occur if there are different expectations regarding the scope and standard of the service being provided. Historically, service level agreements have been regarded as excessively bureaucratic for an authority of Waverley’s size. However, if the Council’s stock (d) Some services are procured directly from external suppliers by the Housing Department. In these cases, it is important to ensure that mechanisms are put in place to monitor performance.
(e) An up-to-date, comprehensive policies and procedures guide for housing services is needed to help ensure they are provided efficiently and consistently and to train new members of staff. Its development is a major task and in order to establish whether this is feasible using only existing staff resources a pilot should be carried out with rent arrears recovery procedures.
(f) Members and the Tenants Panel need to be provided with regular training and/or briefings on housing policies and processes to enable them to exercise their responsibilities as effectively as possible. This should include advice on how to raise queries or refer complaints about any aspect of the service and an explanation of the range of information available/not available to them under the Data Protection Act.
(g) In order to gather and provide as much information as possible and facilitate cross-Departmental working during interviews with customers at Council offices it is important that housing staff maximise their use of computers available in interview rooms and receive any necessary training to enable them to do so. The costs/benefits of providing laptops and/or other portable technology for housing staff who spend considerable amounts of time working away from the office also need to be considered. (h) The Government requires local authorities that still own housing to carry out a stock options appraisal of the Private Finance Initiative, stock transfer and Arms Length Management Organisation by July 2005 to consider how they will meet the Decent Homes Standard. It was therefore not considered appropriate for the 2002/03 reviews to consider options for outsourcing the entire housing service. The potential for further outsourcing of elements of each service was examined. The relevant findings are included in the summaries for each service.

2. Findings relevant to Tenancy Management & Tenant Involvement

(a) Although the housing management team has developed service aims, objectives and standards these need to be formalised and published so that tenants are fully aware of what they can expect from the service. This includes further clarification about the roles and responsibilities of Housing Management Officers and Community Housing Officers.

(b) Through sign-up interviews and follow-up visits to new tenants housing management staff already help new tenants to sustain their tenancies. However, some updating of the information provided to new tenants about their rights and responsibilities and a more user friendly format is required. The contribution of housing management staff towards rent arrears prevention needs to be formally recognised with appropriate procedures, training, facilities and technology put in place to enable them to provide tenants with:
up-to-date information about the availability of welfare benefits.
provisional housing benefit assessments. (c) In order to encourage new tenants to join the Tenants Panel and support existing Panel members further practical and financial assistance needs to be given to the Panel e.g. induction and refresher training courses.
(d) The resources available for promoting tenant participation should be re-examined including the need for a dedicated member of staff and the role of existing housing management staff who should receive further training in this area. (e) Ways of ensuring tenant participation arrangements include tenants who are traditionally hard to reach and broadening the membership of the Tenants Panel need to be explored and developed. The assistance of the Tenants Panel with the development of participation arrangements for the residents of temporary accommodation should be sought [this is a joint finding with the Homelessness and Housing Advice review]. (f) Local groups of tenants should be encouraged and supported with the development of local participation agreements, even when estate-based issues have been resolved. Such arrangements and general local information should be publicised in the Waverley Homes newsletter. The arrangements for the joint consultation of leaseholders with tenants on estate-based issues need to be formalised [this is a joint finding with the Right to Buy and Service Charges review]. (g) The successful pilot car clamping/removal scheme in Farnham is to be extended across the Borough and will cover all vehicles abandoned on housing land. It would be more cost efficient and provide a more customer focused service for Environmental Services staff to deal with all other abandoned vehicles, including those left on a public highway adjacent to Council housing where traditionally housing management staff have been involved in their removal.

(h) There are still some anomalies regarding land held in the Housing Revenue Account (HRA) and the General Fund. Further rationalisation of land ownership between the HRA and the General Fund is needed to ensure potential benefits and liabilities are allocated in the most appropriate way.
(i) Improvement of the specification for grass cutting would lead to improved satisfaction levels among residents.
(j) More specific information needs to be provided to residents about the arrangements for cleaning of external communal areas. A programme of regular estate inspections involving residents, Housing and Environmental Services staff should be introduced. (k) Procedures need to be introduced to ensure the relevant Environment and Leisure Department staff are informed of any planned maintenance or other works that might affect grounds maintenance and/or environmental cleaning on housing estates. (l) There is a need to re-examine the current requirement for residents to clean communal areas within blocks of flats and consider engaging cleaners to carry out this work to be paid for from a service charge levied on the residents. (m) A programme of regular local housing management advice clinics should be developed across the Borough and other service providers e.g. Benefits Section, Citizens Advice Bureaux, should be invited to participate. (n) Waverley’s housing service makes a significant contribution to the Community Safety Strategy and there are comprehensive procedures for dealing with anti-social behaviour and racial harassment. Arrangements need to be agreed with housing associations for dealing with any problems arising on jointly owned estates and to ensure they are able to contribute and benefit from Waverley’s membership of the Community Incident Action Group.
(o) There should be a service level agreement covering the Legal and Court Officer (Housing)’s involvement in legal action to deal with anti-social behaviour, failure to provide access for gas servicing and other breaches of tenancy conditions (except rent arrears which is already covered). (p) New local performance indicators that provide meaningful information about tenant participation using data that is easy to collect need to be set in consultation with the Tenants Panel. (q) Consideration needs to be given to setting local performance indicators to monitor garage letting and management as there are none currently for this area of work. (r) Various consultation exercises were carried out with tenants both before and during the review: a postal survey of 2000 tenants in autumn 2000, a postal survey of 272 new and existing tenants in July/August 2002 and a focus group in October 2002. The results largely confirmed the findings arrived at elsewhere during the review.

(s) Most of the complaints regarding housing management received from July 2002 to April 2003 concerned anti-social behaviour. Most complaints were not upheld.

(t) Feedback from a postal survey of external stakeholders including Citizens Advice Bureaux regarding the Tenancy Management and Rent Arrears Recovery services suggested that tenants needed to be provided with more information about the services provided by other organisations and that the joint working and liaison arrangements between the Council and some of those consulted could be improved.
(u) Consultation exercises carried out with staff confirmed various findings arrived at elsewhere during the review.

(v) Waverley’s average weekly management costs per dwelling were just below the top quartile of all District Councils in 2000/01 but had risen to just below average for all District Councils in 2001/02.

(w) Based on the survey carried out in autumn 2000, the satisfaction of Waverley tenants with the overall service (81%) was just above average for all District Councils. The satisfaction of Waverley tenants with participation in the decision making process (61%) was just below average for all District Councils.

(x) The results of benchmarking with Housemark (on-line information and benchmarking service for social landlords) in 2000/01 showed that Waverley’s costs per property of tenancy management was 25% above the median for its comparator group of sixteen other local authorities. Its properties per employee ratio was 30% below the median due to the relatively high number of sheltered wardens and the high proportion of operational monitoring time apportioned to the activity. The results of benchmarking for 2001/02 are likely to show different results due to the reorganisation of the service.

(y) A comparison with recommended examples of good practice confirmed other findings of the review and highlighted the need for Waverley to seek less formal ways of involving tenants.
(y) There is potential for improving existing arrangements for certain elements of the housing management service that are already outsourced.

3. Findings relevant Right to Buy and Leasehold Service Charges Administration

(a) The contribution made by the service to the Council’s corporate objectives needs to be defined more explicitly. The Government’s proposed changes to the rules governing the use of capital receipts arising from Right to Buy sales and the abolition of Local Authority Social Housing Grant are likely to have a negative impact on future programmes of works to Waverley’s housing stock to meet the Decent Homes Standard and the provision of further affordable housing. Service standards need to be developed so that customers are more fully aware of how the Council meets its statutory or contractual obligations. Those relevant to Leasehold Service Charges administration will need to take account of the Commonhold and Leasehold Reform Act 2002. (b) The provision of more user-friendly and Waverley specific information to Right to Buy applicants would help to supplement the ODPM’s standard leaflet. An information pack or other written information needs to be produced for new and existing leaseholders so that they are more fully aware of their rights and responsibilities. Consideration should be given to issuing a periodic newsletter to leaseholders to advise them of developments within the housing service that are relevant to them. (c) Although Waverley complies with the statutory requirements for consultation of leaseholders, formal and informal participation arrangements need to be developed, including joint estate-based consultation arrangements with tenants on planned maintenance works and other issues of mutual interest. This would help to improve the sense of community and contribute towards sustainable development [this is a joint finding with the Tenancy Management & Tenant Involvement review].
(d) Information about planned works should be provided to leaseholders in the same level of detail as supplied to tenants.
(e) Procedures exist to ensure leaseholders have prior notice of the items they will be billed for when their annual service charge bill is presented. However, a fairly high proportion of service charge invoices are still disputed when they are presented. Consideration should therefore be given to introducing a system for providing leaseholders with advance details of their service charges before the invoice is sent to them. (f) Better use could be made of information gained from Right to Buy sales including the number, type and location of properties sold e.g. in service planning and in developing the housing strategy. (g) The number of Right to Buy sales has been reducing over the last few years. If this trend continues it may be necessary to consider reorganising the service to achieve better economies of scale. (h) The Home Ownership team receives a considerable number of post-sale enquiries from prospective/current owners and solicitors about properties bought under the Right to Buy. The cost of dealing with these enquiries is currently borne by the HRA. The potential for introducing an administration charge for this kind of work should be investigated. (i) An administration charge of 15% of the cost of any repairs or planned maintenance works is levied on leaseholders. However, because only a fairly small proportion of leaseholders have works carried out in any one year the income from the administration charge does not cover the cost of providing the service and the shortfall is funded through the HRA. This is a cause of concern also to leaseholders as they face the possibility of receiving a very high administration charge if major works have been carried out to their home. Ways of making the service entirely self-financing and providing leaseholders with more certainty about the level of future administration charges need to be investigated. (j) Although the arrangements for the collection of leasehold service charges by the Finance Department’s Exchequer Service appear to work well formal criteria and procedures need to be agreed for the recovery of arrears, including action taken by the Council’s debt recovery agents. (k) The full potential of computerised systems is not being exploited to generate performance and statistical information about the Right to Buy service. There is no tailored system in place for the administration of leasehold service charges. Much of the work associated with the production of service charge accounts has previously been carried out manually. Increased efficiency could be achieved through more streamlined processes and further training of staff. (l) Although the local performance indicators for Right to Buy and leasehold service charge administration show good results there are some gaps in monitoring key areas. (m) Surveys of Right to Buy purchasers and applicants carried out during the review showed high levels of satisfaction with the service they had received from the Council although they would have welcomed more detailed information about the purchase price. (n) Surveys of leaseholders carried out prior to and during the review indicated that leaseholders would welcome more detailed information about repairs and maintenance works including the cost. A high proportion of leaseholders would like to be more involved in decisions about the service.
(o) Positive feedback about the Council’s Right to Buy service was received from external stakeholders including solicitors, the District Valuer and the Council’s valuer.

(p) Workshops with staff largely confirmed the findings detailed elsewhere in this report. They also commented favourably on the improvements to the service already introduced by the Home Ownership team although there was some confusion about the scope of their responsibilities and the need for even closer liaison with the repairs and maintenance service was acknowledged.
(q) The absence of any statutory performance indicators for the Right to Buy and leasehold service charges makes any comparison of performance difficult. However, the results of benchmarking would appear to show that the Council compares favourably with other social landlords in the south east and south west of England as regards the percentage of leasehold service charges in arrears. The cost per property of Waverley’s leasehold service charges administration appears to be very low compared with other landlords.
(r) A comparison with recommended examples of good practice confirmed other findings of the review and highlighted the need for Waverley to:
use its web site to disseminate useful information about the Right to Buy and leasehold service charges administration service
introduce equal opportunities monitoring
update documented procedures. (s) Existing arrangements for outsourcing elements of the Right to Buy and leasehold service charges administration appear to work well. The potential for disposing of the Council’s interest in blocks of flats entirely owned by leaseholders is worth exploring.
4. Findings relevant to Homelessness and Housing Advice

(a) Although there are regular reports to Member on the numbers of people presenting themselves as homeless the Homelessness and Housing Advice service has a fairly low profile both within the Council and with external stakeholders. This means that there tends to be limited recognition of the difficult problems facing the service. (b) There are no published service standards for homelessness or housing advice so customers are not fully aware of what they can expect of each service. (c) The Homelessness Act 2002 requires local authorities to have a homelessness strategy in place by 30th July 2003. Councils are expected to increase the emphasis and resources given to homelessness prevention. Some reconfiguration of Waverley’s Homelessness service may be required to achieve this and to ensure there is adequate cover for its one, full time equivalent, Housing Advisory Officer post. A hostel work post has already been approved and should help to ease the pressure on the service. (d) External partners e.g. Citizens Advice Bureaux, have an important part to play in the future development of the Homelessness and Housing Advice service, particularly as regards securing a strategy for meeting the support needs of homeless households including rough sleepers. They also need to be provided with regular briefings on service related issues.
(e) The Waverley Housing Needs Survey 2001 confirmed the shortage of smaller affordable accommodation in the Borough. This contributes to the level of ‘concealed’ households who live within an existing household and may become homeless. (f) There is a shortage of Council owned permanent property available for homeless households. 32% of Waverley’s housing stock is designated for the elderly although 74% of new housing applicants are below the age of 60. The need for a strategy to redesignate ‘difficult to let’ properties for the elderly was identified during the Allocations and Nominations service review in 2001/02. Work on this has begun and needs to be progressed. Housing associations have been a key contributor of affordable housing in Waverley. The Council’s ability to fund housing associations is in doubt following the abolition of Local Authority Social Housing Grant and the Government’s plan to redistribute Housing Capital Receipts but the potential for continuing to work with housing associations to secure further affordable housing in the Borough will still need to be explored. (g) There is a shortage of temporary accommodation available for housing homeless households. The number of privately owned properties leased to the Council for occupation by homeless households has almost halved in the last seven years. More work needs to be carried out to encourage private landlords to let property to homeless households either directly or through the Council. Waverley’s private landlords’ forum is an important source of information for private owners in the Borough and could be promoted further.
(h) Council owned temporary accommodation is mostly located in ‘hostel’ type properties. Many units are small and have shared amenities, a cause of considerable dissatisfaction to residents. Although Cedar Lodge, Milford is scheduled for refurbishment in the near future there is no agreed programme for refurbishing the other ‘hostel’ type properties. Minimum standards need to be agreed for temporary accommodation over and above statutory requirements and properties prioritised for refurbishment in accordance with those standards as resources permit.
(i) The rents charged for privately leased and Council owned temporary accommodation are much higher than those charged for its permanent housing. This is seen as inequitable by homeless residents and increases the risk of those not in receipt of full housing benefit falling into rent arrears. Steps have already been taken in 2003/04 to reduce the rents charged for the Council’s ‘hostel’ type accommodation and no increases in the rents were imposed for privately leased properties which tend to be of a higher standard. However, more work needs to be done to develop and implement a programme for further phased reductions of the rents for the ‘hostel’ type accommodation within rent restructuring requirements.
(j) Regular inspections of all temporary housing and bed and breakfast accommodation need to be introduced to ensure all statutory requirements continue to be met and further steps taken to ensure repairs to Council owned temporary accommodation are carried out to the same standards as for permanent housing.
(k) The shortage of permanent and temporary accommodation available for homeless households has led to a significant increase in the use of bed and breakfast in the last two years. There is a shortage of local bed and breakfast providers with households sometimes having to be placed in Slough. (l) There is a lack of supported housing available locally to cater for the specific needs of various types of vulnerable homeless clients. There is no direct access shelter and the ‘Winterwatch’ night shelter is only open for three months a year.
(m) Housing advice services that are independent of homelessness investigation as Waverley’s is, are commended by the Audit Commission in inspection reports. However, formal liaison arrangements are needed between the Housing Advisory Officer, Homelessness Team and other services such as the Benefits Section to ensure information is shared and issues of mutual concern are resolved. (n) General awareness of the housing advice service should be raised through increased publicity. Cover arrangements need to be in place for the Housing Advisory Officer. Although weekly housing advice surgeries are now held at the Farnham locality office, these need to be extended to other locality offices and convenient venues around the Borough and could usefully involve other Council services e.g. Benefits Section and external agencies such as the Citizens Advice Bureaux. (o) Pressure on the Homelessness team to provide a responsive service has prevented regular reviews and updates of all the written information available for customers. Although changes have already been made to take account of the provisions of the Homelessness Act 2002, a more thorough review of documentation is required to ensure it meets all statutory and good practice requirements. An information pack needs to be developed for homeless applicants and a handbook for residents of temporary accommodation. Residents of temporary accommodation should be provided with regular progress reports regarding their rehousing application. Articles relevant to residents of temporary accommodation should be included in the Waverley Homes newsletter. (p) Good joint working arrangements between the Homelessness Team and internal and external support service providers are essential to ensure that the needs of homeless households are addressed. Formal referral and liaison arrangements need to be established internally with the Mental Health Support Workers and the Domestic Violence Outreach Worker and with external partners. (q) Pressure on staff resources have made it difficult for the Homelessness Team to carry out regular programmed visits to residents of temporary accommodation and bed and breakfast although many are likely to be vulnerable. The new Hostel Worker post should enable such visits to take place.
(r) Previous efforts to establish formal and informal participation arrangements for residents of temporary accommodation have proved unsuccessful. More work needs to be carried out to encourage residents to become involved in decisions about the service. The Tenants’ Panel has offered to provide advice and encouragement to any residents’ groups that are established. [this is a joint finding with the Tenancy Management & Tenant Involvement review]. (s) Housing advice enquiry records should be analysed regularly to identify the profile of customers and used to inform service developments as appropriate within the Council and externally. In order to demonstrate that the Homelessness service operates in accordance with equal opportunities principles all activities should be fully recorded and monitored including homelessness determinations and temporary accommodation allocations. Temporary accommodation should be graded according to its relative quality to enable a more meaningful analysis of allocations by ethnicity, gender and disability. (t) The service contributes towards sustainable development directly and indirectly. The provision of housing for vulnerable households reduces health problems. The refurbishment of Cedar Lodge, Milford will incorporate accommodation suitable for disabled households. Projects for 16 and 17 year olds are to be investigated as part of the Homelessness Strategy. Efforts are made to reduce the need for service users to travel to the Council’s Godalming office.
(u) The service helps to reduce crime and fear of crime through the reduction of homelessness. It also supports the Waverley Community Safety Strategy target of reducing the number of repeat incidents of domestic violence by arranging accommodation for victims. (v) IT systems could be more fully exploited by the Housing Advice service to record and analyse housing advice enquiry records. Improvements in efficiency could probably be gained within the Homelessness service by making better use of IT facilities to generate standard letters and performance information. Although the Council’s web site is already being used to publicise the Housing Advice service it could be used to provide more information for private landlords and about the Homelessness service generally.
(w) Best Value and local performance indicators confirm that the length of time spent by homeless households in bed and breakfast accommodation is increasing. This is a cause for concern given the Government’s target to reduce the use of bed and breakfast. (x) Performance in relation to the time taken to determine homelessness applications improved dramatically in 2001/02 but slipped a little in 2002/03. In order to achieve and sustain further improvements in this area procedures needs to be streamlined and target timescales introduced for the different elements of the decision process. (y) Although details of each housing advice enquiry should be recorded this has not always been done consistently when the Housing Advisory Officer has not been present. There are also some doubts about whether the local performance indicator derived from housing advice record sheets provides accurate and meaningful information about the service.
(z) Further local performance indicators will need to be set to monitor the time taken to relet temporary accommodation and to reflect the Government’s targets to reduce rough sleeping, repeat homelessness, use of bed and breakfast accommodation etc. (aa) The Council’s general residents’ survey of 2001 confirmed a low general awareness of the Homelessness and Housing Advice service. A survey of residents of temporary accommodation carried out during the review found high levels of dissatisfaction with the size of accommodation, noisy neighbours (particularly when facilities were shared) and the high rent and service charges. Most residents wanted the Council to provide them with more information during the homelessness process and on permanent housing options. (bb) No complaints regarding the Housing Advice service were received between July 2002 and April 2003 and those relating to the Homelessness service mostly concerned the non-availability of permanent accommodation. Most complaints were not upheld. (cc) Surveys of private landlords carried out during the review confirmed that the Council needed to improve the service provided to them in order to encourage them to lease properties to the Council or directly to homeless households. The Private Landlords Forum was seen as being a useful source of information.

(dd) Consultations with external partner organisations during the review and the development of the Homelessness Strategy confirmed the need for more joint service planning, commissioning and monitoring of services. There was general concern about the lack of accommodation and support services for homeless people in the Borough. Most partners would welcome more information about the service in the form of regular bulletins or briefings. Some partners also wished to enter into formal referral agreements with the Council. (ee) Consultation exercises with staff confirmed various findings arrived at elsewhere during the review.

(ff) Although Waverley’s performance in relation to the percentage of homelessness applications decided within 33 working days improved between 2000/01 and 2001/02 it was still some way below the bottom quartile of all District Councils and worsened slightly in 2002/03.
(gg) In 2000/01 the percentage of Waverley’s new tenancies given to vulnerable people excluding the elderly was 20%, just above the top quartile of all District Councils. The average number of homeless households (2) and their average length of stay (4.5 weeks) in bed and breakfast accommodation were at the median for all District Councils.

(hh) Benchmarking of the Homelessness and Housing Advice service was carried out by Housing Quality Network (HQN) in 1999 and using Housemark (on-line information and benchmarking service for social landlords) in 2000/01. These showed that the costs of Waverley’s housing advice were low compared to the comparator groups. Homelessness costs were very high although both HQN and Housemark commented that this was probably explained by Waverley’s very thorough investigation process. There were some issues regarding the interpretation of definitions used by Housemark so the 2001/02 and 2002/03 benchmarking may yield different results.

(ii) A comparison with recommended examples of good practice confirmed other findings of the review in particular the need for Waverley to streamline procedures in relation to homelessness investigations in order to reduce the time taken to make decisions on applications. (jj) Although this review found that there is potential for outsourcing the management of temporary accommodation this would need to be considered in the context of the stock options appraisal for the Council’s entire housing stock. The review found little scope currently for outsourcing other elements of either the Housing Advice or Homelessness service.

5. Findings relevant to Rent Arrears Recovery

(a) The District Audit review of the service in February 2002 recommended that the Council develop a more proactive approach to arrears prevention. Regular articles on the need for tenants to avoid rent arrears and on the financial advice services available from Citizens Advice Bureaux are now included in the Waverley Homes newsletter. Benefits Agency leaflets are already usually available in the reception areas of Waverley offices but posters could also be displayed. Further work could be carried out with other agencies periodically to organise and/or publicise welfare benefit take-up campaigns. (b) The feedback arrangements for follow-up visits by Community Housing Officers need to be formalised to ensure Rent Account Officers are made aware of any potential problems of new tenants with paying their rent. Arrangements need to be put in place for Sheltered Scheme Managers to carry out accompanied viewings, new tenant interviews and provide tenants in arrears with appropriate advice and assistance. (c) A comparison with recognised examples of good practice suggests that a corporate debt management policy should be introduced for prioritising tenants’ debts to different parts of the organisation and for co-ordinating recovery procedures. (d) The facility to pay rent by direct debit was introduced in 2002/03 and approximately 28% of all tenants now pay their rent by this method. Further targeting of specific groups of tenants to encourage them to switch to direct debit may need to be considered. (e) Efficiency could be improved by training nominated housing staff to act as authorised officers under the Housing Benefits verification framework. Although annual reviews of benefit claims for elderly and vulnerable tenants will no longer be required from October 2003 the respective roles of housing staff and the Benefits Visiting Officer need to be clarified as regards the assistance to be given with the completion of new and review claims. (f) The District Audit review recommended that housing benefit overpayments should be deducted from the current housing benefit of Council tenants on a weekly basis and this has now been agreed. Regular management liaison meetings between the Benefits section and Rent Accounts team have improved the information exchange on overpayment cases. The feasibility of providing the Rent Accounts team with copies of all overpayment notifications will need to be reviewed by the Benefits section with the introduction of the new computer system from July 2003. (g) In accordance with District Audit recommendations, tracing/debt collection agents are being used for the recovery of former tenant arrears and arrangements have been agreed with Internal Audit for the submission of former tenant arrears for write-off. (h) The joint working, liaison and/or referral arrangements agreed between the Rent Accounts team, Internal Audit and the Benefits section need to be documented. (i) The Audit Commission and Chartered Institute of Housing consider the issuing of regular rent statements to all tenants to be good practice. Waverley sends a rent card annually to all tenants and this includes any arrears balance but it is not considered practicable or cost effective to issue full rent statements to all tenants on a regular basis.

(j) An example of good practice which it is proposed to introduce is the provision of pre-printed information on rent payment methods, how to access debt management/benefits advice etc, on the reverse of rent arrears letters. However, mechanisms for referring tenants in arrears for money advice need to be agreed with the Citizens Advice Bureaux. (k) Through its key aim of trying to prevent rent arrears and sustain tenancies the service makes a positive contribution to sustainable development in Waverley. Reducing people’s housing problems has been found to help improve the sense of community and reduce crime rates. The range of automated payment methods also helps avoid the need for tenants to travel to pay their rent.

(l) There has been a significant reduction in the overall level of rent arrears (including former tenant arrears and housing benefit overpayments) from a high of 4.67% at 31st March 2002 to 3.64% at 6th April 2003. This trend is confirmed by the Best Value and local performance indicators relevant to the service. Consideration needs to be given to setting a local performance indicator for the write-off of former tenant rent arrears and to the relevance of the current indicator relating to Court action. (m) Various consultation exercises were carried out with tenants both before and during the review: a postal survey of 2000 tenants in autumn 2000, a postal survey of 272 new and existing tenants in July/August 2002 and a focus group in October 2002. The results largely confirmed the findings arrived at elsewhere during the review. (n) Most of the complaints relating to rent arrears recovery received from July 2002 to April 2003 concerned policy or process issues. Most complaints were not upheld.

(o) Feedback from a postal survey of external stakeholders including Citizens Advice Bureaux, suggested that tenants needed to be provided with more information about the services provided by other organisations and that the joint working and liaison arrangements between the Council and some of those consulted could be improved. (p) Consultation exercises carried out with staff revealed a number of commonly held views and confirmed various findings arrived at elsewhere during the review.

(q) A comparison of Waverley’s performance indicators with 20 of its ‘nearest neighbour’ district councils showed that for the years 1999/2000, 2000/01 and 2001/02 Waverley’s performance was some way below the best performing authorities except in relation to the write-off of rent arrears where, with very low levels of write-offs, it outperformed most other councils. However, the improvement in Waverley’s performance in 2002/03 as regards the proportion of rent collected takes it to well above the top quartile performance of all District Councils in 2001/02 (2002/03 data not yet available).

(r) The results of benchmarking with Housemark (on-line information and benchmarking service for social landlords) in 2000/01 showed that Waverley’s costs per property of rent arrears recovery were below the median for its comparator group of sixteen other local authorities. However, the number of properties dealt with by each employee was below the median, suggesting fairly high staffing levels. Waverley’s total rent arrears were high compared with the other authorities. This was partly explained by its very low level of arrears write-offs. The results of benchmarking for 2001/02 are likely to show different results due to the reorganisation of the service.

(s) Some local authorities and housing associations operate incentive schemes to help encourage tenants to pay their rent promptly. The Tenants Panel was consulted about the possibility of an incentive scheme being introduced but was opposed to the suggestion.

(t) A private sector tracing and debt collection agency is used for some former tenants arrears. Tenants in arrears are advised to contact their local Citizens Advice Bureau for money advice. These arrangements appear to work well. There is limited scope for further outsourcing of the service except through alternative management arrangements for the entire housing service if this results from the Council’s stock options appraisal.