Wrexham Council met to approve £23,500,000 of spending on Council Housing in the borough. We reported last week on the proposals with the increase in spending graphed against previous years.
Today’s debate had two common themes, support for the proposal itself and disagreement over the method of selecting where the money would be spent first.
Councillor Mark Pritchard, the Lead Member for Housing and Planning, said “It’s the biggest capital programme we have had in Wrexham. This is fantastic for Wrexham and fantastic for tenants.”
Some of the funding of the programme will be based on loans, which Cllr Alun Jenkins spoke about saying “Borrowing has to go on for several years, and at a greater amount than is borrowed this year.”
“The best laid plans can go awry, total spending could be £240 million by 2020. We are borrowing to reach this, and in the future there could be a possible borrowing cap.”
“If the government put a cap on borrowing next year, the programme will not be sustainable for the four or five years.”
The Lead Member referred to a ‘guesstimate’ saying “It is likely closer to £300 million, we have to start somewhere, and no intention to borrow that much.”
“We need to keep it simple, don’t make it complex. In four years we will be finished. I don’t have a crystal ball. Now is the time to borrow money. It’s not about sharing it, it’s about putting it into houses that need it.”
The controversial aspect of the recommendation stated the Council should “agree the prioritisation of properties for the Kitchen and Bathroom Replacement Programme based alphabetically on Community Council boundaries.”
Previously the Executive Board agreed to carry out the work on the basis of age of properties, therefore the oldest properties have been the first to have their kitchens renewed. With concern over the future of funding the method of deciding who ‘goes first’ was a hot topic.
Cllr David Bithell supported the basis of report but took issue with the method:- “I have a little concern on the recommendation 3.2, alphabetically … reminds me of a program of Sesame Street. I am not sure if that is the right way a council should deal with a capital programme.”
“I would rather see a fair percentage across the board rather than the alphabet.”
Cllr Mark Pritchard, robustly defending the alphabet idea, said “We have to start somewhere and we have to finish, I think it’s the fairest way.”
“Whichever system we use and wherever we start and finish we will upset someone.”
Mr Pritchard then mentioned an example involving ‘the first’ being Acton, which the Council Leader Neil Rogers quickly corrected as being Abenbury. Amusingly Mr Pritchard then made a point to instantly reel off eight further correctly ordered Community Council areas to perhaps indicate his grasp of the proposal.
Cllr O’Toole also disagreed with the alphabet suggestion, referring to it as an “Alphabet Lottery”, despite the selection process not involving any form of randomisation. She suggested a more ‘fair and equitable’ solution involving the funding being distributed more evenly over the areas.
Cllr Phil Wynn echoed the basis for concern over the alphabet system, saying “I have genuine concern if we can deliver the programme over the four years. Can the Finance Officer give assurances that all the kitchen and bathrooms can be replaced?”
Mr Wynn gave an example of a new tenant in Acton getting upgrades, whereas an older tenant in Worthenbury who is a ‘good member of the community’ could not. Cllr Wynn went on to propose a budget split across wards, and rewarding tenants based on length of tenure:- “Doing this we would reach the same destination but in a way that if we ‘catch a cold’ it helps reward good tenants”.
Cllr Andrew Bailey said “I welcome the extra eco funds, dropping bills and making people warmer has to be welcome”.
Cllr Bailey also humorously suggested using surnames of Councillors as a basis for selection. Cllr Phil Wynn suggested “Sticking the letters of the alphabet in a bag and draw them out, it would be the most politically fair way of doing it. That is the truly most fair way.” We are unsure if he was joking.
Cllr Pritchard responded with frustration on the focus of the ‘alphabet ordering’ discussion saying “In Wrexham we have sat on our hands for far too long.”
“This is a nonsense here today, we should celebrate and move forward. It is a serious issue, but our capital programme rolls out every year and we support it every year. We have had a rolling programme for the last eight years. This here today for me is that members want it in their wards first”.
“It is not about pleasing constituents, its about bringing housing up to standard. I am not bothered if I am first or last.”
“I really wish politicians of all levels would not play politics with this.”
“It is not about rewarding tenants it is about bringing 11,400 housing stock up to the Welsh Government Housing Standard. Regardless if it’s a new family or old tenant, we will replace kitchens and bathrooms.”
Cllr Hugh Jones said “The risk factor about certain properties not being done applies to whatever system you go down. What concerns me is what is the most cost effective way to do it? A scattergun approach could mean the cost per property goes up, that is not an equitable way of doing it.”
Cllr Pritchard agreed with this viewpoint saying “You go into a community, deal with it, and move on to another, otherwise some parts would be dealt with and not others if ward based. It is a sound way of doing it”.
Cllr Arfon Jones pointed out that last year the oldest houses had the priority and queried the change, requesting whatever is settled on this year becomes the firm method.
We were going to buy some Alphabetti Spaghetti however neither QD nor Discount UK had any, so the ‘comedy’ element of this will be the following video from today’s meeting: