Leeds City Council ex-tenant arrears hit five-year high

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Questions have been asked about soaring amounts of rents owed by former Leeds City Council tenants- after it emerged the total owed to the authority has risen to a five-year high.

Since 2013, the total arrears has risen year on year from around £2.5m to almost £4m.

However the amounts written off each year have FALLEN in the same period from a high of over £1m to £750,000, according to a newly published council report.

The council blames the rising arrears on the cumulative and lasting impact of the bedroom tax and wider welfare reforms.

But councillor Barry Anderson, the Conservative group’s shadow spokesman for housing, said it was time the council looked again at its collection practices and improved the way it approaches tenants who fall into arrears.

During the last financial year, the authority collected £509,714.71 of former tenant arrears debt.

This year, £121,119.01 has been collected to date.

The arrears figure emerged as the council agreed to write-off almost £90,000 of “irrecoverable” former tenant accounts in arrears, money that is wiped after all efforts to recover it has been exhausted.

Councillor Anderson said: “With the council still in a very difficult financial position, it is always concerning when we see money written-off that could be used to help improve housing in the city. The amount of people actually falling into arrears also seems to have risen.

“To reduce the amount being written off we need to reduce the number of people falling into arrears in the first place.

“The council must become more proactive, spotting people who are in danger of falling into arrears earlier in the payment cycle, and giving them the support they need, as well as encouraging more people to switch to direct debits.

“I also want to see the council improve the way it distinguishes between those who can’t pay and those who won’t pay. We need to provide help to those who can’t pay, whilst toughening up our collection practices for those who won’t.

“The hidden cost of tenants falling into arrears is actually borne by the tenants that do pay their rent on time, since rent is set at a level that tries to take account of some people not paying. If fewer people fell into arrears there would be more to spend on improving housing services for all tenants.”

A Leeds City Council spokesman said: “The increase in former tenant arrears over recent years reflects an increase in the rent arrears of current tenants since 2013 following the introduction of welfare reforms including the Under Occupation Charge.

“Housing Leeds has been working hard to increase rent collection of both current and former tenant arrears and to ensure that we support tenants affected by benefit changes, and as a result of this current rent arrears for 2016/17 reduced to the lowest they had been for three years.

“While the level of former tenant arrears have increased the amount written off remains low at 0.04% of the rent due and we collected more former tenant arrears in 2017/18 than we had for the last four years, with over £500,000 collected.”

Rent received from council housing tenants is a “ring-fenced budget” meaning it can only be used to improve council housing services, and not to fund other general council services.