Amid all the confusion surrounding Watford Community Housing Trust’s plans to levy new service charges of up to £600 a year on its tenants, one thing is clear: The tenants are a powerless element of the housing trust.
And after the events of the last few months, its jargon about “empowering” tenants and putting them at the heart of its decision making is looking decidedly hollow.
In November, tenants were informed by letter that the trust needed to recoup £2.5m for “additional services” it said it had not previously been charging for. These included services such as grounds maintenance, caretaking, fire alarms and looking after communal services.
The result would be an extra weekly charge for tenants on top of their rent and, understandably, the result was an outcry.
From the numerous calls I received from tenants on the newsdesk, it was clear the letter was the first time they had any idea these new charges were coming down the chute. It was also clear they were not only angry, but many were also scared about the impact these new charges would have.
There was little specific information other than that the charges would be up to £12 a week and would be phased in gradually over three years.
This left many people wondering what impact it would have on household budgets and what the consequences would be for those who were unable to pay.
From the view of the tenants I spoke to, the decision to impose these new fees was made behind closed doors and then imposed by diktat.
Following the angry reaction from many tenants, the trust belatedly added some concessions to its fees plan, such as extending their phased introduction from three to five years and said the maximum charge will not be as much as £12 a week.
The trust says the fact that it has made these concessions is proof it has listened to its tenants. However, I suspect if they had truly listened, the charges would be rescinded completely.
To many tenants the charges appear grossly unfair. One tenant I spoke to pointed out that hitherto these communal services had ostensibly been paid for by the trust with money from tenants’ rents. So the new service charge was essentially being imposed like a second Council Tax.
However, we do not know how the trust’s finances work as they, like the decision-making process, is hidden from the public.
The decision was taken by the trust’s board behind closed doors and the finances on which it is based are not open to the public.
After the decision over the fees was announced and the outcry started, the trust then showed its true colours when it comes to openness. It will not tolerate it.
At a series of meetings held with tenants, it banned not only members of the press from attending but also local councillors. This is faintly absurd seeing as it is Watford Borough Council’s housing stock the trust is running.
Had service charges been imposed when the council ran its own housing stock, it would have been made at an open meeting, where the finances were open to public scrutiny.
But where once there was democracy and accountability, that has now been removed.
And the social housing tenants of Watford have been left without democratic representation or recourse.