Council review finds tenants may have been overcharged on rent
- Credit: Mick Howes
A council has referred itself to a government regulator after discovering some of its tenants may have been charged a higher rent than required.
East Suffolk Council has been undertaking an in-depth, four-month review of its Housing Landlord Service following the appointment of a new head of housing last autumn.
It found improvements are required in a number of areas, including rent-setting policies and health and safety records.
The issue dates back to 2014 - before the merger of Waveney District Council (WDC) and Suffolk Coastal council - and relate to decisions made by WDC.
The council has now referred itself to the Regulator of Social Housing, who will determine whether any action needs to be taken, as well as appointing a compliance consultant to make sure the right policies, processes and mechanisms for monitoring are in place.
The council wrote to all tenants across the district this week to explain the situation, adding an independent audit of every rent account is being carried out to understand how many tenants may have been affected, and how much they may have been overcharged.
The process is expected to take three months. Anyone entitled to a refund will be informed by the council as soon as possible.
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Council leader Steve Gallant said: “I am grateful to officers for the thorough and diligent review they have undertaken, however their findings are deeply disappointing, and reporting our position to the housing regulator is entirely the right approach.
“I want to personally reassure all our tenants that any discrepancies in relation to rent payment will be resolved and a drop in the standards they should expect will be confronted and addressed.
"They are, and will remain, our number one priority and we are taking this matter incredibly seriously. We also know that they will have questions and we will make it as simple as possible for all tenants to get the information they want and need.
“As soon as the issues came to my attention a group of senior officers began the development of a robust plan to manage this situation and ensure it is rectified promptly.
"We have also assured the Regulator that these matters are being treated with the utmost importance and will be prioritised to ensure no unnecessary delays.”
A web page has been set up to answer a number of questions at www.eastsuffolk.gov.uk/housing2022.
The letter in full
East Suffolk Council takes its responsibility as a landlord very seriously and over the last four months we have been carrying out an in-depth review to ensure we provide a good quality, cost-effective service, which delivers value for money for you, our tenants.
We have looked at all aspects of Health and Safety related to our properties, including Fire Risk Assessments, Asbestos Management, Water Safety, Gas and Electrical Safety as well as the management and maintenance of lifting equipment including Lifts and Stairlifts.
This review has shown us that the data we hold is not as comprehensive and robust as it should be, so we are now arranging for additional inspections to be carried out, to ensure we hold correct data, which will enable us to manage our properties better.
We have also conducted a review of how we set our rental charges, to ensure we meet the requirements set out in the ‘Rent Standard’, a policy which, as Registered Providers, we must follow when setting rent.
The review has identified that the guidance may previously have been misinterpreted and as a result, some tenants who moved in after 2014, may have incorrectly been charged a higher rent.
As a result, we are now arranging an independent external audit of every rent account to understand how many tenants might have been affected and what may have been incorrectly charged.
This will take approximately three months to be concluded, and at that point we will be in a position to tell you whether or not you have been affected.
We will update you as soon as we know more, and we thank you for your patience as we investigate this matter thoroughly.
Please continue to pay your rent as normal.
The issues here will only affect a proportion of tenants and, as we have said, we are currently working hard to establish who is affected.
Should you be entitled to any form of refund, you will only be informed by the Council and not a third-party organisation.
Additionally, because we have identified some aspects of the service which do not meet the standards we expect to provide, East Suffolk has referred itself to the Regulator of Social Housing.
They will now consider the information we have provided and will determine whether any action needs to be taken against the Council.
As soon as the issues were identified, we took the action which was required, and a group of senior officers has developed a robust plan to ensure this situation is rectified promptly.
As a result, a significant amount of work is already underway, to ensure East Suffolk is fully compliant with all of the standards set out by the Regulator.
As part of our review, we have also looked at how we can improve our services to meet the aspirations set out in the government’s Social Housing White Paper.
This document sets out the actions the government will take to ensure that residents in social housing are safe, are listened to, live in good quality homes, and have access to redress when things go wrong.
One area of focus is a new enhanced Tenant Involvement Service, which we are currently developing. We want tenants to hold us to account and scrutinise the delivery of the Housing Service, so that we continually improve.
We will be sharing more information on this in due course.
Please be assured that your safety is our highest priority, and we will be working hard over the coming weeks and months to ensure all our properties meet the expected standards.
As we have more information, we will of course ensure that you are made fully aware.
We do understand that you may have questions.
We have set up a web page which contains all the information you need, and this will be updated regularly.
The web page is www.eastsuffolk.gov.uk/housing2022
Heather Tucker, head of housing
East Suffolk Council