Wigan Council reveals 'new approach' to helping residents clear rent arrears

New plans announced to help council tenants avoid falling behind on their rent
New plans announced to help council tenants avoid falling behind on their rent

The town hall is bringing in new measures to help people clear rent arrears, prevent them from falling behind in the first place and cut evictions.

Wigan Council has revealed its “new approach” to collecting rent from tenants, using early intervention to make sure people are on top of their payments before the debt becomes too much.

A pilot which has been in place for around three months has already helped to save residents more than £91,000 in council tax exemptions and discounts.

In a report to the housing advisory panel, the authority reveals the collection rate is now at 98.76 per cent but it still faces challenges from “under-occupancy” and welfare reforms.

The new scheme, the report says, will combat existing rent arrears and the onset of Universal Credit.

The supporting document outlines plans to focus on prevention and prioritisation and highlights areas where positive changes have already been made.

It says: “Using early intervention aims to stop arrears from accruing to a level seen as insurmountable by the customer and in need of enforcement action - and subsequent court costs and eviction by the service.”

The council says a holistic approach will be taken and that the teams will help customers make the most of benefits, discounts and exemptions as well as making sure that appropriate referrals are made to welfare teams.

Teams will work to change the culture and payment behaviour of some tenants unable to prioritise rent and spend their money on “non-essential” things.

There are a number of areas which have already seen reform. Council officers have undertaken a full caseload analysis which profiles accounts and customers in rent arrears to provide insight into pay behaviour and triggers for debts.

The conclusion was that early intervention is the best way to target arrears prevention and that intervening later was “far less effective”.

A pilot is also proving successful with results showing a “promising rate” of first payments made.

The scheme includes a phone call on the first day of the tenancy to establish financial and household circumstances, maximisation of benefits and council tax discounts and best payment methods and frequency checks. The tenant then receives a text the day before the first expected payment is due, as a reminder, and a home visit if it is missed.

The report states: “The pilot has been running for 13 weeks and to date 46 per cent have zero balances on their rent account and are keeping their account up to date, 117 customers have been set up to pay by Direct Debit, £63,380 has been identified and awarded in council tax reduction and £28,367 has been identified and awarded in council tax discounts and exemptions.”

The new process for handling cases at eviction stage was introduced last year, aiming to take a “firmer stance” where rent had not been paid. For these cases only full payment of the arrears and court costs would be accepted as an alternative to eviction.

Since then around £100,000 in full payments has been made by officers handling evictions.

Work is also being done to gain a greater understanding of at risk and vulnerable people.

The report states “These customers very often have multiple debts with the council and are at risk of eviction or enforcement action as well as being hard to engage with.”

Collaborative working is being implemented to help vulnerable customers retain their tenancies and prevent any further action being taken against them.