A former Rochdale councillor claims council tenants are being unfairly evicted because they are unable to pay their quarterly water bills direct to their supplier.
Seven years ago the council agreed to pay tenants’ bills in advance to the United Utilities water company and began issuing combined water and rent bills to tenants.
Peter Evans, who in 2004-5 was a member of the council scrutiny committee - which raised a number of concerns about the agreement then being planned - also fears council tenants are not being given access to funds that assist those who fall into debt or being offered help to reduce their water bills.
“What concerns me is that residents in non council properties are billed directly by United Utilities. If they can’t pay it then they have a private debt. They would not get evicted for this.
“But in council properties a tenant’s combined bill makes it difficult - some might say almost impossible - to work out whether any debt is for water. As a result they have a debt with the council’s (now former) housing management company, Rochdale Boroughwide Housing (RBH) and face being evicted. This is unfair,” says Evans.
Rochdale Law Centre echoed this concern in a report to the scrutiny committee in 2008. It said: “Council tenants are treated less favourably than other residents as no other section of the community is at risk of losing their homes for non-payment of water charges.”
Four years on, the Law Centre has worked on cases in which water rate debts have been part of the reason for the evictions, according to its senior housing officer Gill Quine. “ The lack of differentiation on the tenants’ bill makes it impossible to say how many,” she said.
Rochdale council evict over 100 people each year from its properties.
The United Utilities Trust Fund assists customers who fall behind with payments. Evans claims these are not available to council tenants. RBH has disputed this but failed to provide information on numbers.
United Utilities customers who cannot have a water meter can apply for an assessment charge, which for a single person is £272.60 annually, rising to £376.63 for multi-occupants. Evans has been informed that no occupants of Town House flats - seven large RBH tower blocks known locally as ‘the Seven Sisters’ - who pay just under £11 a week in water charges have applied for an assessment charge.
Evans said: “Lack of advice and support means the lower tariffs are being missed by many tenants.”
One long-standing council tenant on the Kirklee Road Estate has for five years been refusing to pay his water rates in protest at the council’s actions. Labourer Frank Dixon has just promised three appeal judges in the High Court that he will pay £5 a week off his arrears, which at £1,978 will take nearly eight years to erase. Dixon believes it has cost Rochdale Council almost £30,000 in protracted legal challenges to his case. The judges were not asked to rule on the legality of the agreement, which Dixon is continuing to contest.
On the grounds that RBH became a separate company earlier this year, Rochdale Council would not answer the Big Issue in the North’s questions. These included a potential new twist in the long running saga as from April this year RBH has been a private company and Evans has been questioning whether “two private companies can conclude an agreement between themselves without the formal agreement of the payee.”
Evans, a former Conservative councillor, has now written to the communities and local government secretary Eric Pickles asking him to examine the contract signed by Rochdale Council and United Utilities, which runs till March 2015.