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Future hopes and fears for Watford Community Housing Trust
Government changes to the benefit system and building more social homes are the two biggest challenges facing Watford Community Housing Trust, its chief executive has said.
This month, the not-for-profit trust celebrated five years since it took over the Watford Borough Council’s affordable and housing stock, following a vote by tenants in 2006.
The milestone is a significant one as when it was set up, the trust made a series of five-year pledges by which its performance would be judged.
The trust has manage to keep all its promises bar one, which is to spend a pot of money it was given by the council to improve communities.
Yet as the community trust moves into its next five-year plan, tenants have called on politicians in the town to take more responsibility for the organisation that controls its housing stock.
Following the five-year anniversary, Tina Barnard, the trust’s chief executive, said its main achievement was completing a multi-million pound repair and refurbishment of thousands of homes.
She said: "I think the big thing has been improving the stock. That’s what people voted for, that was the key promise and we have achieved that."
The trust manages nearly 5,000 homes in Watford and Three Rivers, however it had committed to build 500 new homes in the area over the next five years.
Ms Barnard said building more homes would be a big challenge for the trust over the next five years.
She said another big challenge would be helping its tenants navigate the sweeping changes the Coalition Government is planning to the welfare system, including a possible cap on housing benefits.
Over the last five years the trust has kept all the pledges it made when it took over the housing stock except its promise to spend a £9m better communities’ fund.
Earlier this year Watford Borough Council agreed to push back the deadline for when the remaining £2m had to be spent until 2015.
Ms Barnard said the trust did not want to rush the spending of the money and end up with "white elephants."
Instead she said the trust would be consulting its tenants on what they thought the money should be spent on.
However this week Watford’s politicians have faced calls not to wash their hands of the trust now that its initial pledges have expired.
Chris Blackett, who has been a tenant of the borough council and trust for 40 years in Haines Way, Leavesden, said she was concerned the trust would now be left to its own devices.
She said: "I think it is the next five years I am concerned about. That’s mostly because of what the Government is planning to do with social housing.
"I think up until now the trust has had to keep its promises as it is overseen by the council and it had no choice. Now they really have a free hand.
"I think the trust needs to be scrutinised. We vote for our councillors and I would like to know they are keeping an eye on what’s going on."
One change Mrs Blackett said she would like to see in the trust over the next five years was for tenants to have a greater representation on its decision-making board.
She also called for the trust to ensure the vast majority of the new homes it built were social housing and not just affordable.
Steve Johnson, a Conservative Watford councillor who sat on the trust’s board last year, backed Mrs Blackett’s calls for the borough council to play a greater role scrutinising the trust’s work.
He said: "It think it’s really important the council maintain a close eye on what the trust is doing; it’s the residents’ housing stock."
Councillor Johnson added overall the trust had performed well since taking over from the council and gave it a B+ grade.