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The housing maintenance service provided by Sedgefield BC is poor and has uncertain prospects for improvement, acco...
The housing maintenance service provided by Sedgefield BC is poor and has uncertain prospects for improvement, according to an independent report released today by the Audit Commission.

The Audit Commission Housing Inspectorate gave the service no stars because it fails to have a customer focus, access to all aspects are limited, and information about the level of service customers can expect is lacking. Poor working practices and inadequate IT systems reduce the service's ability to provide a good quality, value for money service.

Roy Irwin, chief inspector of housing, said: 'The council has now begun work on a new improvement plan which recognises the weaknesses of the current service and is realistic in its short and medium term goals. If all the actions in the improvement plan are achieved this will deliver significant improvements to customers. However, the plan still needs to gain the approval and support of councillors, staff, tenants and all partners and stakeholders. In addition, we found the service to be very poor and so the level of change required to move the service to a 'fair' rating is substantial.'

Inspectors found many weaknesses in the service, including:

- The level of emergency repairs, at 43 per cent of all response repair work, is four times the good practice level recommended by the Audit Commission.

- The gas servicing policy does not comply with legal requirements and over ten percent of properties are overdue for their annual gas safety check.

- There are no agreed relet standards for empty homes and the cleanliness of properties is poor. This creates a negative impression to potential tenants in areas where council homes are in low demand.

- The performance of the service is not monitored, and there are no agreed standards on what level of service should be provided to customers. The council has been committed to retaining the service in-house, irrespective of whether or not this provides value for money.

- Tenant participation is at a developing stage and there is a tendency to consult with rather than to involve tenants in developing policies, standards and service priorities

Inspectors did find some positive aspects of the service, including:

- A 'Tenants Guide to Housing Repairs' has been drafted which clearly explains who is responsible for repairs and repair priority times. There is a good section on recycling and useful addresses.

- A survey found that 93 per cent of tenants are generally happy with how polite and courteous repair operatives are, and mess and disturbance was kept to a minimum in 83 percent of cases. Overall, two thirds of tenants are satisfied with the quality of the repair work, but 17 per cent are dissatisfied and a further 17 per cent very dissatisfied.

- The adaptations service has a number of positive features, particularly the speed at which high priority adaptations are completed. However, the council has not opened this service up to competition to ensure value for money is obtained.

To help the service improve, inspectors made a number of recommendations, including:

- Develop an action plan to make a speedy and significant reduction in the level of emergency and urgent repairs.

- Set up a system to monitor how well the repairs service is delivered in terms of quality and cost.

- Ensure compliance with all gas servicing regulations for the safety of tenants and address the illegal practices identified during the inspection. (The council has already started to address this issue.)

- Take steps to ensure tenants have a real say in developing policies, standards and service priorities. This should include the development of a written policy setting out repair and cleanliness standards for empty homes offered for rent.

The council's housing department manages 10,400 homes - about 28 per cent of all the housing stock in the borough. The housing maintenance service is responsible for responsive and out-of-hours repairs; gas servicing; adaptations; and work on empty properties. There is an expected rent income of£21.6m for 2001/2002, and the average weekly management cost per home is£7.32. The total capital investment budget for council housing is£7.3m for 2001/2002. An estimated£67.5m is required for repairs and improvements to the stock.

A statement from the local authority follows.

'We are disappointed with the best value housing inspectors' findings of our responsive maintenance service as being poor.

We have over the last few years concentrated our efforts in improving our properties through our capital programme with schemes such as new uPVC windows and tenant led improvements with new kitchens and bathrooms.

Although we feel our properties are in a relatively good condition it is clear that our responsive maintenance service is not providing the standard of service that is expected.

We have worked closely with the best value housing inspectors throughout this inspection and we have accepted their findings. However, we have responded positively to the report findings and this has been acknowledged by the best value inspectors.

We have reviewed and updated our Service Improvement Plan to provide a more comprehensive and robust set of actions in which we can take the service forward, to make steady progress and ensure we are continually improving over the five years of the plan.

Cabinet approved the Service Improvement Plan on 25th April 2002. The plan takes account of the inspectors' comments, best practice, how we can involve customers more and the necessary resources to deliver the improvements.

A service improvement team has been established to ensure the effective monitoring, performance and delivery of the plan. The team will also be responsible for reporting progress to customers, members, the housing inspection service and staff so that all stakeholders are fully aware of the progress of the plan on a regular basis.

Weare confident the Service Improvement Plan will be delivered, will ensure continuous improvement in the service and upon next inspection will positively move up in the ratings.'

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