People now "choosing between heating, rent, and food" after rent price hike in Wigan council housing

The decision to put up rents in Wigan’s council housing by seven per cent would leave people choosing between “heating, food and rent”, a councillor has warned.

The vote from cabinet last week took another grilling by the Confident Council Scrutiny Committee where councillors highlighted it would hit “the poorest in the borough”.

“As always I am against rent rises,” Coun James Paul Watson told Wigan Town Hall. “I hear the right to buy scheme is to blame for everything, are we writing to the government to change this?

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“This is going to have a massive impact on our financially vulnerable. It is heartbreaking to see what I see on Hag Fold near me [Atherton].

“This is only going to get worse. If you have the chance to pay food, heating, rent, what are you going to go for? It breaks my heart to see people struggling, why are our most vulnerable being punished.”

Coun Watson, somewhat in jest, added that the only positive he could see would be that “this would reduce carbon footprint because people won’t pay for heating now”. This came after the committee was told of the decision – which the cabinet and the Housing Advisory Panel debated last week and "reluctantly approved”.

They did so as it was decided this was the only way they could balance the books and pay for repairs and upgrades to meet new regulations brought in following the Grenfell Tower disaster. In addition to that a taskforce has been instructed to review housing conditions and find any hazards that would cause health problems to residents.

This came in the wake of the death of Rochdale toddler Awaab Ishak in 2020 following respiratory problems related to mould. Coun Mary Callaghan also expressed her concern to the chamber as a representative of “one of our poorest wards in the borough” [Douglas].

“We have had cases where some residents have been without heating,” she said.

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“I understand it is difficult getting hold of parts but this is going to put more pressure on the council. They need to get on top of the repairs.”

In response, officer Tony Clarke explained that the priority as a result of increased building costs is shifting from constructing housing to repairing and upgrading current stock.

He added that the pre-1940s stock is prone to heating issues and agreed there were issues with sourcing parts and contractors – something the council is working to resolve.

Despite this rent hike coming in, around 80 per cent of people in council housing receive housing benefit and would not be impacted by this price rise, the report set out.

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The report also stated that a forced rent reduction of one per cent for four years from 2015 left a deficit of £30m for the council.

This, alongside the additional costs in the millions to upgrade the stock to meet new regulations and make repairs was the key reason the rent was set to the maximum cap put in place by the government.

A number of councillors expressed their concern for the people being hit by this, but carried the understanding that “there was no other option” to go down this route, the chamber heard.

But Coun John Harding, who also sits on the Housing Advisory Panel shared what he learned from the debate last week.

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“We have to keep on top of things, we can’t just react to things that go wrong,” he told the chamber. “Our number one priority is keeping residents safe.

“The only way we could do this would be to keep the seven per cent. We do not do this happily, we do this with reluctance.”