By NEIL RIDDELL
THE council’s housing chief this week highlighted the shocking condition workers find some of the SIC’s rental properties in when they are vacated by tenants.
Figures put before the council’s audit and scrutiny committee showed that there has been a substantial improvement in the department’s ability to re-let houses in the past three years.
The proportion of “high demand” houses that have been re-let within four weeks has risen from 22 per cent in 2005/6 to 47 per cent in 2007/8. The average time taken to re-let has fallen markedly, from 257 days in 2005/6 to only 63 days last year. The council has its own internal aspiration to re-let properties within a fortnight wherever possible.
But SIC head of housing Chris Medley reacted angrily at a meeting of the committee on Wednesday when councillor Allison Duncan said he wanted to see further improvements, comparing the SIC with Hjaltland Housing, which on average re-lets within four and a half days.
Mr Medley produced a series of graphic images for those present in the Town Hall chamber showing the disgusting condition of certain properties, including some which were found with excrement, blood and urine over the floors and walls.
“Staff deserve praise not criticism,” he said. “I really do get fed up with this constant comparison – it’s comparing apples with pears. I’m not trying to say they [Hjaltland Housing] don’t get bad tenants, but it is reasonable to assume the council gets a higher proportion. We are dealing with people at the margins of society. It’s quite shocking in this century that people are living in these conditions.”
Mr Medley said it was unfair to compare local authorities with housing associations because the council is the landlord of last resort and quite often finds properties left in an “appalling condition”, sometimes because they have been abandoned because the tenant has been jailed or taken into medical care.
He said because of the difficulties many of the people in question encounter it is often not possible to recover costs when a property is abandoned.
Although the number of pro-perties found in a dreadful condition is a “relatively low proportion”, Mr Medley said they were “not uncommon” and the time taken to make them ready for prospective new tenants tends to skew the housing service’s per-formance indicators.
“I don’t mind us being criticised or set challenges. But that does need to be in the context of what staff have to face – I don’t want to set challenges that are unrealistic. Sometimes some properties can’t be turned around as quickly as everyone would like.”
Mr Duncan stressed that he was not trying to criticise but that he was “always ambitious to achieve perfection”, to which Mr Medley replied that he was happy to continue working to improve the figures but asked councillors to recognise that they may never be able to match the performance of housing associa-tions.
The Shetland South councillor hit out at new legislation due to come into force in 2012, which he said would mean that “homeless folk are housed all the time and decent folk won’t be”.
Although he agreed that the “sad reality” of the new laws was that it would make it difficult for anyone who was not homeless to get a council house, Mr Medley, who said he had once been homeless himself, pointed out that many homeless people were also “decent folk” and that “every homeless person is not a drain on our resources”.
“There are cycles of social problems that keep occurring,” he said. “The solution is not a housing one but a social multi-agency solution, a societal, cultural issue to be addressed.”
The changes to the law will lead to more people being classed as homeless, which Mr Medley said could hamper the council’s attempts to provide housing for those with more general needs.
He added that his department was hoping to establish within the next six months how many houses the council needs to build in the coming years, and how much it is going to cost, so that a political case can start to be made.
Because of the SIC’s level of debt – the highest outstanding housing debt in Scotland at £48m – Mr Medley said he thought the chances of making a significant difference from the SIC’s resources would be limited.
The council’s housing stock fell from 2,014 to 1,956 in the past year because of right-to-buy, but Shetland North councillor Bill Manson last month suggested the SIC should consider suspending right to buy.