Social housing

Irwell Valley, ‘variable service charges’ and what you really need to know…

As some of you will be aware, Irwell Valley Housing Association are planning to implement an ‘Intention to vary your tenancy agreement and charge you a variable service charge’.

You’ll know this because they wrote to every tenant back in September, to ask your opinion and for feedback – but did you actually read the letter or just throw it in the bin?

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I’m asking because, according to Irwell Valley, they received only 139 replies out of a possible 2580. That is just 5% of residents.

They also received a petition with 102 signatures on it. That’s 102 residents out of 2580 that currently live in property owned by the housing association.

It’s these statistics that make me think that perhaps you didn’t read that letter after all, if you had there would have been far more response from the letter in September and loads more signatures on the petition. That’s why I’m writing up this blog, to point out a couple of ways in which these changes will potentially affect you when they come in to effect on the 1st of April next year.

Firstly, Irwell Valley did ‘note and listen’ to all your responses and held a panel session in order to ‘review them in full’ – there were two resident board members present but at the time of writing I’m not sure who they are.

Either way, there were no comments relating to the variation in the tenancy agreement and they have decided to go ahead anyway, from April next year.

So, why are they introducing the charge? It’s because during a recent review it was pointed out that residents in Sale and Haughton Green weren’t paying for services that were being charged for in other areas and, to ‘ensure fairness’ they decided that you can pay it too.

At the panel it was raised that residents had queried what happens to the power generated by the solar panels on the high rises, as well as any income from the masts also on the high rises. Irwell Valley explained that the energy from the solar panels is used within the building to reduce the amount of energy used in communal areas and this will be reflected in the service charge to residents, although it will be negligible really. The income from the masts is not reserved only for the buildings they’re attached to – Irwell Valley say that this money is ‘used alongside rental income to invest in homes and neighbourhoods’.
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Now for the really interesting stuff…

What exactly does ‘Variable Service Charge‘ mean anyway?  Each year Irwell Valley will assess how much they expect to spend on providing services, this means that the charge is estimated based on the previous year’s costs or estimated costs. At the end of the year you will receive a statement showing the actual costs and any over/under charges. The service charge will then be adjusted for the following year.

So, for the first year they will be working on estimates that could be quite reasonable. However, if there’s a spate of vandalism, houses being damaged, fencing being stolen or general stoopidity leading to damage, you can expect your service charge to go up and up and up…..

Interestingly, Irwell Valley say that the cost of the service charge could vary amongst similar properties – for example, looking at the blocks, ‘the number of repairs required to each block will change each year, e.g. one block could require 3 repairs to the door entry system in one year and another block could have no repairs, therefore the first block will have a higher service charge that year’.

In theory that could also mean various roads or sections of the estate could have differing charges – if you live in a patch that sees a lot of damage you could see a rise in your service charge. Hardly fair if it’s not you or yours causing the damage in the first place….

…which leads me to the next possible bone of contention.sale-west-sign

If you are in receipt of full housing benefit/universal credit the service charge will be covered by your benefits and you shouldn’t be required to pay any additional cost yourself. You do need to inform Universal Credit yourself as Irwell Valley won’t be doing so, but if you receive housing benefit you don’t even need to do that as they will inform them themselves.

However, if you are working full-time or not in receipt of the benefits above, you’ll be expected to pay it yourself on top of your rent.

I pity those that are out at work and not receiving benefits when they come home to find the kid up the road has damaged yet more property that will increase the Service Charge that their parents will be unaware of because they don’t pay it themselves…..

Maybe this is a clever ploy by Irwell Valley to get residents to stand up to the few that spoil it for the rest, after all, what better way to bring it to your attention and bring about a little community action than to hit you in the pocket.

If you feel you may have money problems paying your service charge you should contact the Irwell Valley Income Management Team as soon as possible on 0800 035 22 11 – they will be able to offer you confidential help, advice and support.

Once you get the letter in February 2017 with the full breakdown of charges, Irwell valley will be holding a number of surgeries to allow you to meet with an IV colleague on a one-to-one basis and discuss your individual circumstances.

To try n end on a positive note, here’s a list of all the services you can expect to receive from Irwell Valley – please let us know if they fail to meet any of them n don’t forget to take a pic and post it on SaleWestVoice 🙂

  1. Cleaning communal windows (blocks) – quarterly, in March, June, September and December
  2. Communal cleaning (blocks) – monthly and includes all ledges cleaned, nosing on stairs and bannister rails cleaned, sweep n mop all hard floors, dust, damp wipe of skirting, clean of internal fixtures n fittings, check on external door and light fittings for cobwebs and clean all internal door glazing.
  3. Communal Electricity (blocks) – you’re paying for it in your service charge so you can expect the communal area to be lit, warm and with a working lift.
  4. Lift Service Contract (blocks) – again, it’s included in the charge so you should expect to have a fully operational lift that’s maintained monthly.
  5. Repairs to Lift (blocks) – Irwell Valley have taken into consideration previous breakdowns etc so if there are more this year expect the charge to go up.
  6. Estate Maintenance (EVERYONE) – This cost is included in the service charge and is divided by the total number of properties on the estate. The service is provided by Greenfingers and Nurture and you can expect grass cut fortnightly throughout the growing season, kerb edges and fence lines kept neat n tidy, grass areas to be edged during the dormant season, weeds removed in shrub beds and on hard surfaces as well as all shrub and hedges to be pruned to a neat ‘hedge like’ appearance. Remember that fly-tipping issues and bin emptying will remain responsibility of Trafford Council.

 

Irwell Valley will also be charging a 15% management fee which is calculated by taking the cost of each service and multiplying it by 15% – this is ‘to ensure services are delivered to a high quality n provide value for money, the cost of working out the service charge and the cost of collecting said service charge. Funny times eh 🙂

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Sale west through the years

Back in 2004 the Manchester Evening News ran an article about a notorious estate in Sale, titled ‘No-go estate that defied the odds’, going on to say it had been described as ‘an island of deprivation in a sea of affluence.’

 The estate they referred to was Sale West, or the ‘Racecourse Estate’ as it was known back then, with many of the roads named after UK racecourses.

Manor Avenue

Manor Avenue

 

Built amid high optimism in the 1960’s, as part of Manchester regeneration, the Racecourse was constructed on agricultural land and used to move people out of areas surrounding the city centre in questionably named ‘slum clearance programmes.’

This solved a couple of problems for the council hierarchy, or ‘Manchester Mafia’ as they were called by a few in the know.

Firstly, it freed up land that could be used to build luxury homes for the high

Manor Avenue Overspill estate 1964

Manor Avenue Overspill estate 1964

earners willing to pay extortionate rent or sky-high mortgage rates, turning low income generating neighbourhoods into almost instant cash cows. Backed up with a drive in the 90’s to repopulate the ‘new and improved’ city, and with property prices at an all time high, there was some serious money made from people eager to live near the centre.

Sale West signSecondary, and perhaps even more controversially, there were some areas where residents were deemed by the council ‘the least involved with their neighbourhood’ or ‘least accessible for social professionals’. Hulme, Gorton and other parts of East Manchester were targeted, resulting in many families being offered, and accepting ‘a new home on a new estate’, relocating to Sale West.

Supposed to be ‘a jewel in the crown’ of Manchester council’s estate programme, the Racecourse faced problems from the beginning and quickly became a hotbed of crime and antisocial behaviour.

Built as a so-called overspill estate, owned by Manchester but situated in Cheshire, Sale West proved to be anything but the gem anticipated by the council. Residents found themselves feeling detached and cut off from services while violent crime was quickly on the rise.

Manor Ave

By the mid nineties, many of the properties were run down or empty and the
area had become neglected. The only bus on the estate was cancelled as drivers refused to venture there any longer, sick of smashed windows and abuse from the local youths.

The racecourse had developed a terrible reputation but hit an all time low in March 1997, when local shopkeeper, Ian Marshall confronted two robbers in the off licence he ran on West Parade and was shot dead.

Police were under intense pressure to produce a result following criticism of their lack of response to the previous problems on the estate and very quickly David Ashberry was arrested and charged with the murder, later being sentenced to 14 years in prison.

IMG_6245Measuring a lofty 6 foot 4 inches tall, David has always maintained his innocence, a claim backed up by several witnesses at the scene who, when questioned by the police at the time, stated that there were three robbers, all masked and all definitely under 6 foot. He is currently fighting to clear his name and is supported by a group called Freedom, which works with people who claim they have been wrongly convicted.

Informants on the estate at the time spoke about a dark blue car being involved and refuted claims made by police that Ashberry was ‘obsessed with guns and had a shrine to them in his flat.’ These claims turned out to be totally unsubstantiated, no firearms of any description were ever linked to him and Ashberry was eventually convicted on the only evidence they had against him, a statement written by a woman who lived near the scene of the crime.

The murder of local lad Ian was the final straw for many residents and when the council were approached by Irwell Valley in March 2000, offering to buy the troublesome estate from them it was ‘warmly received’ by all involved.

Following Irwell Valley Housing Association success in securing the estate or ‘stock’ as they refer to it, the transfer of Sale West Estate, formally the Racecourse, from Manchester City Council, a long term redevelopment master plan was drafted, including improvements to existing houses, demolition of so called ‘hard to let’ properties and redevelopment of various vacant land sites dotted around the estate.

When Irwell Valley took over Sale West around 80 per cent of properties were considered long term ‘unlettable’ by Manchester City Council, over 70 per cent of residents were dependent on social benefits and vandalism, youth congregating and empty, abandoned properties were the top three priorities highlighted in a local area consultation.

Manor Court

Manor Court

By this time buses and taxis had totally stopped venturing onto the estate, segregating residents and instilling the ‘no-go’ zone mentality further still.

Manchester City Council had allowed the estate to fall to wreck and ruin, merely displacing the problems and never really solving them – at the expense of the residents they offered a ‘fresh start in a great place to live’.

Irwell Valley pioneered a scheme called Gold Service back in 1998 and it had proved to be a great success when implicated in other ‘troublesome’ estates they managed so it was no surprise when they launched it on Sale West soon after acquisition.

The Gold Scheme is a great example of the housing associations entrepreneurialism – developed to ‘aid regeneration of deprived areas into more pleasant places to live’, it focuses on residents rather than housing stock, defining them as local customers and putting their needs first on the regeneration agenda. So far so good.

The concept is that ‘good’ residents are rewarded with additional services and amenities. By providing these ‘perks’ the association tries to increase the involvement of residents and, in doing so, their attachment to the housing association and neighbourhood.

This explicit distinction between good and bad tenants has forced local governments to rethink some of their equality-based housing policies.

The assumption behind the scheme is learning by moral example: seeing the benefits neighbours receive triggers residents to comply with the behavioural rules set by the housing association in order to become eligible for the same rewards. This will not only improve the behaviour of residents but also the reputation of the area to outsiders, this in turn, they hope, will attract new and especially affluent residents to the area. Best garden competition anyone?

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It’s no coincidence that the new, private houses were built around Sale West around eight years after Irwell Valley took over either. The association believes that ‘middle-class groups will only feel at home in deprived neighbourhoods when the behaviour of antisocial residents has changed’.

First they addressed these issues using the Gold Service system and then, when they felt the time was right the new houses went up creating a new revenue source offering ‘housing specifically designed and priced for middle class families’.

Another strategy employed by Irwell Valley to create ‘a pleasant place to live’ is attracting the right kind of people to buy the properties, people who can serve a as good role models to the other residents, interesting fact – employees of the city council and social services were given priority when the new houses were released for sale.

Sale West is definitely more than a ‘pleasant place to live’ today, but how much of that is really down to Irwell Valley and their almost Orwellian strategies to build a better society

watching us watching you

watching us watching you?

That is not to say that they haven’t assisted; the money spent on housing has gone some way to make them more habitable, although many are still plagued with damp and mould that Irwell Valley are slow to respond to, to say the least.

Gardens are generally neat and tidy, the Gold Service embraced by 90 per cent of residents and antisocial behaviour reports are at an all time low.

This is despite the fact that Irwell Valley has slowly but surely reduced the ‘extra’ services they offered at the start of their take over. They opened the Phoenix Centre in Sale, providing training, help with interviews and access to educational funds – open only to those residents who had achieved Gold BUS STOPService status with the association. This closed in 2005, not long after they withdrew the very successful estate Rangers they had employed to help with both anti social behaviour and general maintenance of properties, gardens and communal areas.

The ones really responsible for all these changes and more are the people who live on Sale West. The ones that have a sense of pride in their community and will go the extra mile to make sure it’s a great place to live, because for them, pleasant just isn’t enough.

The future of Sale West is again in the balance, this time from the threat of budget cuts severing many of the amenities they still have. The library,

Coppice library

Coppice library

community centre and youth club all face closure as Trafford council attempts to make massive savings, seemingly at the expense of those already under increasing pressure.

Fortunately, Sale West is a
community that gains its strength from the people who live there, becoming the desirable place to live Manchester city council first envisaged when it was built; not from schemes and incentives that are dangled carrot-like in order to get them to comply however, but rather from the determination of many to make a change and that’s something that no amount of budget cuts can ever take away.

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Photographs taken by Kim K Photography. All are subject to copyright and may not be reproduced or used without permission and correct attribution 🙂

 

The edited version of this article first appeared in Sale West Voice Magazine

 

 

 

Is the government housing scheme all it seems?

A new scheme offering 100,000 first time buyers in the UK new homes with a 20% discount has been announced by the Prime Minister as part of a drive to ‘help people onto the housing market’

Starter home initiative will be rolled out early next year

Starter home initiative will be rolled out early next year

 

Aspiring homeowners will be asked to register their interest in buying via the Starter Home Initiative from the start of next year, an initiative that has been developed to help what some have dubbed ‘Britain’s housing crisis’.

A large part of the project involves a change to the planning system, ‘freeing under used or unviable brownfield land from planning costs and levies in return for a below market value sale price on the homes built on the site’.

Under section 106 developers are obliged to pay money towards ensuring adequate infrastructure for the community. No S106 liabilities means no responsibility to ensure this happens, the land could be bought and developed without suitable access to transport, education, open spaces and libraries that the payments are intended to fund.

David Cameron rolled out the same rhetoric we have come to expect, saying: “Hardworking young people want to plan for the future and enjoy the security of being able to own their own home’, appearing to overlook the 85,000 homeless people on social housing waiting lists in Manchester alone. There may be a need for ‘affordable starter homes’ but the need for affordable social housing is far more pressing.

The reality is that this scheme is not going to increase housing availability, nor improve affordability. Similar schemes in the past have done little more than transfer lots of taxpayer cash into developers’ pockets without really increasing output or decreasing the costs charged for housing. There is no long-term benefit or gain for society from this scheme, unlike real investment in social housing that sees new homes built, rented at rates people can afford and let to families on a perpetual basis.

Is this really nothing more than Cameron’s idea of trying to ‘buy’ election votes?

Cameron offers the same old rhetoric….

When Thatcher sold off council houses in her own bid to do the same it led to the largest shortage of social housing ever, with thousands of homeless paying the price.

The government’s denial of the role of social housing in ensuring our economic needs to be met is both short sighted and self-defeating. The current housing policies are not sustainable, as was shown by the role it played in the economic crash five years ago.

It could be an attempt by the government to delay the UK housing market from collapse. The UK is the highest indebted EU country with an ageing, pension-less population and the younger generation strapped up with increasing student debt, estimated at £44,000 each from 2015. This latest “Starter Home Scheme’ is very similar to other shared ownership schemes – we’ve had ‘buy to rent’, ‘help to buy’, ‘rent to buy’ and now ‘buy for votes’ – short term and perhaps locally they seem like a good idea but from a long term macro economic perspective the raw perspective the raw price goes up to compensate.

We do need an increase in housing stock but I’m not sure this scheme will give us that. If it were really about lowering prices then surely an idea would be to bring down all housing costs by 20%. We don’t need discounted houses, or ‘affordable builds’ – just simply more homes.

We need more affordable housing for all

We need more affordable housing for all

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