Jacqueline Canham, lead inspector of housing, said:
-We found some excellent examples of innovation and generally high levels of customer satisfaction within the housing service provided to the people of West Berkshire. We have made some recommendations of ways in which the council may address some weaknesses. The council's recent track record, including its work to date on the improvement plan, is very positive. Senior management and councillors recognise the importance of the service and support the principles of best value.'
The inspection report highlights a number of key strengths:
- Customers generally rate the service highly - the exception being people in temporary accommodation.
- Customers of the grants and staying-put service have very high levels of satisfaction.
- The council's performance, compared to similar authorities, is now among the best .
- No families have had to live in B&B for the past nine months.
- People have to wait a relatively short time to receive a decision on whether the council will help them or not if they are threatened with homelessness.
Inspectors found a number of areas where the council could improve. These included:
- Improving the amount of publicity for its services and involving service users in the setting of standards.
- Developing a longer-term view about what to do to reduce the numbers of people becoming homeless and ensure that it does not need to resort again in the future to the use of bed and breakfast accommodation.
- Improving the out of hours service and the amount of contact with people in temporary accommodation.
Inspectors are confident that there are promising prospects for the service to improve:
- Although the council's best value review was flawed, its improvement plans address the majority of the weaknesses in the service.
- There is a great deal of evidence in the council's recent performance, it's staffing changes and it's capital programme to indicate that services have already improved.
- The innovative partnering agreement that the council is entering into contains a degree of risk, but if it is successful should deliver improvements to all services.
To help the service improve, inspectors supported the council's actions and made a number of recommendations, that include:
- Ensuring that its resources are used to best effect by improving its homelessness, energy efficiency and rural housing strategies.
- Improving access to the service by ensuring that out of hours emergency teams have local knowledge, improving the range, design and distribution of advice leaflets, increasing the number of home visits and understanding the characteristics and needs of the black and minority ethnic population
- Addressing a number of health and safety concerns in temporary accommodation:
- Improving contact with people in temporary accommodation; and
- Applying the 'four Cs' of best value (compare, challenge, compete, consult) when deciding upon the future of the properties that it still owns, the housing register and the impact of its partnership work.
West Berkshire Council transferred its 7,109 council houses to Sovereign Housing Association in 1989 but retains responsibility for housing strategy, enabling, homelessness, the housing register, housing advice and private sector housing grants. The housing service has a total revenue budget of£730,000 and a capital budget for the Social Housing Grant that was predicted to fall from£4.7m in 1999/2000 to£1.4m in 2001/02, but which has since been boosted by a new£13.5m asset sales programme.