Waterford City & County Council’s (WCCC) Housing Chief has rejected a South Kilkenny Councillor’s claim that elements of City Hall’s current housing policy are in breach of the European Social Charter.
In a statement to The Munster Express, Housing Director of Services Ivan Grimes voiced his disagreement with the contention proffered by Cllr Melissa O’Neill at last Wednesday’s Piltown Municipal District meeting in Ferrybank. Cllr O’Neill told the meeting that she believed Waterford Council would violate Article 16 of the European Social Charter in the event of it not providing maintenance or repair support to any client who was behind in their rent payments.

Elements of Waterford City Hall's housing policy were criticised by South Kilkenny-based Councillor and Ferrybank resident Melissa O'Neill on Wednesday last.

Elements of Waterford City Hall's housing policy were criticised by South Kilkenny-based Councillor and Ferrybank resident Melissa O'Neill on Wednesday last.

“WCCC has almost 5,300 tenants in our housing stock,” stated Mr Grimes. “The reality is that all housing maintenance and improvement works are funded by the housing rental income. In recent years, WCCC has given a high priority to reducing the number of tenants who are in significant rent arrears by getting those tenants to enter payment plans – as a result there are now only 50 tenants with arrears greater than €1,000 not in a payment plan and these tenants are now being subjected to enforcement measures under the Housing Act 2014.”

He added: “Parallel to this, WCCC decided that any tenant that was in arrears and also refused to enter a payment plan to reduce/clear the arrears within a reasonable time period would not be provided with any other housing services from the Council (e.g., routine maintenance services would be withdrawn from that tenant). WCCC does not consider this policy to be in breach of the European Social Charter.”

At the same meeting, Cllr O’Neill said she believed that Waterford City & County Council had imposed a “besotted debt” on its tenants, a move which she suggested could negatively impact on up to 200 Council clients living at Abbeylands and Ard Daire in Ferrybank. This, she said, was due to the Council backdating rent for between two to three years on the basis of a review conducted in 2016. “No other Council had backdated their rent and put a debt like this on their residents,” she declared. “It will lower the standard of living of residents.”

According to Cllr O’Neill’s information, this backdating process had not been brought before the seven-strong Waterford City & County Council Housing Strategic Policy Committee (SPC). Responding to Cllr O’Neill’s claims, both Cllrs Ger Frisby (FF) and Pat Dunphy (FG) said it was important to establish the “exact facts” in relation to the matter with Cllr Frisby adding that if the Waterford Housing SPC’s members weren’t up to speed, then “that’s an indictment on them”. Wrote Ivan Grimes: “Since the merger of local authorities in Waterford in 2014, Waterford City & County Council has been operating three separate Differential Rent schemes depending where the individual properties are located (i.e., the old City Council, Dungarvan Town Council or Waterford County Council). Under each of the three schemes, the rent for each property is calculated by reference to household income and household composition. There was an expectation that a national Differential Rent Scheme would be introduced by the Minister but to date this has not materialised. Following a discussion at the Housing Strategic Policy Committee in December 2018 it has been decided that a single Differential Rent Scheme should be introduced in 2019. WCCC’s Housing Section has commenced the preparation of a new Scheme which will be introduced later this year.”

He added: “As required by housing legislation, each of the three Differential Rent Schemes provides that it is the responsibility of each tenant to inform the Council immediately of any changes in household income or household composition. This is also clearly set out in the Tenancy Agreement which is signed by the Tenant prior to taking up the Tenancy and in our Tenant’s Handbook (available on the Council’s website) and it is clearly explained that any adjustments arising out of such changes will be backdated to when they occurred. This is standard practice in local authorities although it is a matter for each authority to determine how to levy charges for rent arrears.”

As for the claim tabled by Cllr O’Neill in relation to WCCC’s Housing SPC, Mr Grimes stated: “The Councillors and other members of the Housing SPC are regularly briefed on all aspects of our housing functions (including as noted above the plan to adopt a single Differential Rent Scheme at the most recent meeting). However, as the collection and levying of housing rent is an executive function the SPC does not have any decision making role in these matters. Regular updates and briefings on the Rent Review carried out in 2017 were also provided to Councillors at Plenary and District meetings.”