Today's Scottish news (January 28)

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Universal Credit Special

Each day we will feature an article commenting on some of the issues around welfare reform; what special measures have been put in place to help with a smooth introduction and possibly most importantly, what the impact will be on tenants. 

Q&A with Mark Walker, Head of Income at AmicusHorizon

Q1: Universal Credit (UC) is being implemented next month, what has AmicusHorizon been doing to prepare for this change?

There are three areas we cover that’ll be affected by Universal Credit when it’s first rolled out – Swale, Hastings and Rother. We also know it’ll be new claims for single claimants – so that gave us a base to work from.

We’ve been using our data to highlight those residents that might be affected. We’re planning to contact them via either email, text, telephone call or a visit – whatever their preferred method of contact is.

This will enable us to identify any vulnerable residents and we’ll be using our Money Matters Team to help focus on these residents. We’ll be using a triage approach to identify whether any of these residents need help with money management/budgeting, computer skills or help with opening up a bank account.

Briefing sessions have been run across the organisation, so not just Income Officers. Housing Officers and front line staff have been briefed on the claimant journey and how Universal Credit works. We’ve organised a full training day for Income and Financial Inclusion Officers to understand elements such as Housing Costs and Alternative Payment Arrangements.

We ran a direct payment pilot with one of our local authorities last summer. This gave us a great understanding of what to expect, albeit just focusing on direct payment of housing benefit.

And we’ve been reviewing our arrears intelligence software so accounts are reviewed daily rather than weekly. We want to be smarter and sharper so we’re on top of each rent account.

Q2: How do you think the changes will impact on your organisation?

It’s likely to be resource intensive, especially with regards to initial support such as digital inclusion and money management. However, we’ve over 50 digital champions and a dedicated Digital Inclusion Officer within the organisation who’ll be there to help residents.

We’ve also got a Money Matters Team who have sourced over £2.5 million for residents in extra income over the last two years. So although there might be an impact we think we’ve got the structure and foundations in place to help. The pace of Universal Credit looks like it’ll gather momentum from May 2016 when current claims are migrated over.

Q3: What problems do you think tenants may encounter in adjusting to UC?

Moving to monthly budgeting may be a struggle as some of our residents budget weekly or fortnightly. Being computer literate, especially completing forms online, may be a problem.

Q4: Do you intend to provide any extra support to tenants in the period of adjustment?

We’ll be here to support residents who move over to Universal Credit. So by using our triage approach we’ll be providing that extra touch in terms of advice and support.

Q6: With regard to welfare reform in general, what challenges have the reforms posed to your organisation, and what steps have you taken to mitigate these?

These are significant changes and will no doubt pose challenges for those in receipt and for those administering benefits. But we will continue to monitor the impact of the changes.

Wheatley Group raises £50m with record-low bond

Scotland's biggest social housing landlord has raised a further £50 million to boost its house building activities at a record low borrowing cost.
Wheatley Group secured the money through a bond which, at the time of pricing, is the UK’s lowest all-in price for a housing association public bond.
The successful return to the bond market follows its £250m deal in November last year which was more than £125m over-subscribed.
The £50m bond, retained and priced last week, achieved an all-in cost of 3.542 per cent, with a spread over gilts of 1.4 per cent. Wheatley, the parent organisation of Scotland’s largest Registered Social Landlord, Glasgow Housing Association, was rated AA- by Standard and Poor’s in 2014.
Wheatley Group chair Alastair Dempster hailed the latest bond issue as another massive vote of confidence in Wheatley Housing Group and Scotland.
He said: “We were absolutely delighted by the success of our debut issue in November. The record low coupon achieved today represents outstanding value and will enable us to press ahead with our plans to play a major part in delivering more affordable housing.”
Group chief executive Martin Armstrong (pictured) said Wheatley was delivering one of the largest housing development programmes in Scotland in recent years.
“Market conditions, combined with strong confidence in Wheatley by institutional investors, created the perfect opportunity for us to issue the £50 million retained last year,” he added.
“The additional funding will allow us to press ahead with our plans to supply almost 3000 new affordable homes in Glasgow and across Central Scotland and continue to deliver excellent services.”
Wheatley has also concluded separately a new £50m commercial finance arrangement with the Group’s existing funders to increase the supply of homes for private rent. This will enable its commercial subsidiary, Lowther Homes, to grow its current portfolio of almost 500 homes from Glasgow’s West End to Leith over the next four years.

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Housing Options strategy reduces homeless applications

Scottish local authorities providing housing options have reduced the number of homelessness applications, according to figures from Scotland’s chief statistician.

According to the first published statistics, half of households who contacted councils using the Housing Options Approach for assistance between April-September 2014 went on to make a homelessness application.

The Scottish Government-funded Housing Options Approach allows households to contact local authorities who will investigate alternatives to a homelessness assessment.

A quarter of people who contacted participating councils remained in their existing accommodation, while a further quarter found alternative accommodation.

Scottish Government housing minister Margaret Burgess MSP (pictured) said: “It is vital prevention activity, such as Housing Options, continues to result in many more people avoiding the misery of homelessness.

“The Scottish Government's Housing Options Approach funding programme, already backed by investment of £950,000 and a commitment of a further £150,000 for 2015/16, has helped local authorities embrace prevention.

“Council staff are assisting households to consider their range of housing options to address their housing needs in order to help prevent homelessness before it occurs.

“Rather than only accepting a homelessness application council homelessness services will work with employability, mental health, money advice and family mediation services.”

Shelter Scotland released a statement saying it is "encouraging to see that around 50 percent of families and individuals were given assistance and avoided making a homelessness application".

The housing charity added: “Housing options is a positive step forward and these figures show that for many, the scheme works.

“However, it is worrying to see that contact was lost with around 1 in 10 people who approached their local authorities for help and advice. We need to know more about what is happening to these more than 2,500 families and individuals to see if more can be done to help them.

“For the scheme to work for everyone who needs help, local authorities need to have more social homes available to truly offer a full range of housing options. We think the Scottish Government needs to ensure that 10,000 new homes for social rent are built each year for the foreseeable future in order to tackle the housing crisis and give homeless people a full range of housing options that has the person and their needs at the centre of the process.”

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Women offenders – a role for housing associations

Charles Milne, chairman of Kingdom Housing Association and until recently a legal member of the Parole Board for Scotland has welcomed the justice minister’s decision to scrap the proposed new prison for women offenders which was to have been located in Greenock.
Acknowledging that “Mr Matheson's decision was bold and brave”, Mr Milne (pictured) called upon those implementing the new policy to be equally imaginative in reallocating funds when considering service delivery.

Noting that Dame Elish Angiolini’s report on women offenders had recognised “service redesign and reintegration into the community” Mr Milne expressed the view that in many areas certain housing associations such as Kingdom could be well suited to assisting or co-ordinating the types of service reconfiguration that Dame Elish envisaged.
He said: “Housing associations certainly have the skills to contribute to the lateral thinking which will be needed to seriously tackle the complex issues surrounding women offenders and which presently leads to repeated periods in custody for many. 

“And housing associations have the local knowledge and technical ability to deliver the capital infrastructure which may be needed to provide more appropriate accommodation and also have the staff to support women returning to the community in sustaining their own tenancies.”
Whilst recognising this was a complex issue with no straightforward solutions, Mr Milne added: “We also have the expertise to support women to deal with the variety of issues which may have contributed to their offending and also assist them building confidence, education and the life skills to avoid a return to custody.”

Mr Milne also welcomed the support which had been offered by the other political parties and expressed the hope that "this would allow longer term planning to be achieved with the funds to support the change in policy being committed long term irrespective of which party controls the parliament". 

Kingdom Housing Association is a registered charity operating in Fife, Falkirk, Clackmannan and Perth with an annual turnover of £19 million. Since inception they have developed over 4600 affordable homes with 201 homes commenced in the last year.

Employing 350 staff the association provides a range of care services and in the last year assisted 244 sustain a tenancy. With a mission statement to provide "more than a home" in the last year their wider action programme provided 426 with support or training opportunities and assisted 244 people into employment.

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£4m to transform empty properties into affordable homes

Empty shops and properties which are “blighting” Scotland’s town centres could be transformed into affordable housing thanks to a new £4 million fund.
The Town Centre Empty Homes Fund will provide grant and loan funding to help increase the supply of housing in Scotland’s urban and rural towns.
The Fund, which will open for bids shortly, will offer funding to regenerate both homes which have been lying empty for long periods of time, and to convert empty commercial spaces into residential accommodation. The properties will then be available for affordable rent or sale.
It comes on top of the work of the Shelter Scotland managed Empty Homes Partnership which recently had its funding doubled and received a three year extension, to help bring more private sector empty homes back into use.
Housing Minister Margaret Burgess (pictured) announced details of the new Fund at the Shelter Scotland Homelessness Conference yesterday.
She said: “Making sure everyone has access to affordable homes where they can feel safe and warm, is a priority for the Scottish Government. But it’s not just about building new homes, we need to make better use of our existing housing stock and properties.
“It makes absolutely no sense for us to have more than 30,000 homes lying empty when homelessness still exists in Scotland.
“Empty shops and flats can be an eyesore in our communities, devaluing our properties and even encouraging anti-social behaviour.
“Bringing these empty properties back into use is a cost-effective way of increasing the supply of housing available to families across Scotland and it also aides community regeneration.
“By transforming derelict shops and flats into new homes, we will be able to inject some life back into our town centres and make them attractive places to live and work.”

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Scottish Welfare Fund has helped one in twenty households

One in twenty households in Scotland have now been given assistance through the Scottish Welfare Fund, according to new figures.
During its first 18 months of operation, around £47 million has been allocated to nearly 120,000 households, providing a safety net to households in a disaster or emergency and helping people set up home or stay in the community rather than being in care.
Statistics to 30 September 2014 show that during the most recent quarter (July to September 2014), 52,400 applications were made to the Scottish Welfare Fund, an increase of 33 per cent on the same quarter last year.
A total of 25,800 Crisis Grants were awarded, 32 per cent more than the same quarter last year. These were predominantly for food, heating costs and other living expenses, with an average award value of just over £70.
The number of Community Care Grants awarded (11,200) was 51 per cent more than the same quarter last year. These were predominantly for home furnishings and white goods, with an average value of just under £600.
Of the 120,000 households given assistance via the Fund to date, 64,000 were single people and 39,000 were families with children
Cabinet secretary for social justice, Alex Neil, (pictured) said the increase in applications over the last year is due, in part, to work done by local authorities and advice services to raise awareness of the Fund.
He added: “We have allocated £33m a year to the Scottish Welfare Fund to make sure that we continue to reach out to households in the most deprived areas - around half of awards are made to applicants in the 20 per cent most deprived areas of Scotland.
“Many families are paying a heavy price for the UK government’s welfare reforms and this investment will help to mitigate the effects of these cuts on some of our most vulnerable households.”

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Committee welcomes extension of community ‘right-to-buy’ to all of Scotland

The Scottish Government’s ambition to give communities across Scotland greater access to purchase land for the benefit of local people is to be welcomed, but the “devil’s in the detail”, according to the Scottish Parliament’s rural affairs, climate change and environment committee.
The committee’s comments came as it publishes a report on aspects of the Scottish Government’s Community Empowerment (Scotland) Bill. One of the key aims of the proposed Bill is to simplify the right-to-buy process for urban and rural communities living in Scotland.
Rob Gibson MSP, convener of the committee (pictured) said the land reform is “a continuing and complex process”.
He added: “The committee agrees that the government’s proposed changes have the potential to bring equality of opportunity for Scotland’s urban and rural communities, while balancing this with the need to protect the rights of land owners. However it is vital that the government addresses the detailed issues which were highlighted in evidence so that Scotland’s communities can be properly supported in their ambitions to bring social, economic and environmental benefits to their areas and to future generations.”
Rob Gibson said: “The devil’s in the detail and some fundamental issues are still to be addressed.
“For example, the government is yet to pin down an agreed definition of ‘eligible land’; which community bodies can apply to buy; and what kind of support will be in place to help communities fulfil their aspirations.
“The committee is also concerned that details on costs for communities and landowners, such as legal costs arising from appeals, costs to communities in preparing and developing proposals and bids and the costs to public bodies of providing support to communities remain unclear.”
The rural affairs, climate change and environment committee’s report highlights a range of issues, including:

  • Many stakeholders support the introduction of the new power extending the community right-to-buy where there is no willing seller, but the majority viewed it as a power of last resort, when other methods and negotiations had failed. They considered that the existence of the power would, however, have an important role in incentivising negotiation.
  • Agricultural land should be exempt from right to buy unless it fails to meet “good agricultural and environmental condition”.
  • Land which is intended for recognised conservation or environmental purposes should also be exempt from right to buy.
  • The difficulties faced by communities seeking to exercise their right to buy and the importance that appropriate support and funding is available to all communities across Scotland.
  • The Committee agrees with those stakeholders who consider that the mapping requirements for community right-to-buy are excessive and considers that there is a need to streamline the mapping process and simplify the information requirements.
  • The provisions of the Bill could have gone further, but the Committee views the Bill as part of a wider process of land reform and the considers that, once amended as recommended by the Committee, should resolve many of the problems of the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003.
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River Clyde Homes hands apprentices a chance to succeed

River Clyde Homes has given two young people from Inverclyde the chance to complete their apprenticeships.
Jordan Smyth and Chris Gray, both aged 18, had started their apprenticeships as joiners with local companies but due to a decline in work, both boys were released from their employers.
These two posts have been part financed by Inverclyde Council’s Employer Plus Wage Subsidy programme, funded by the Youth Employment Scotland project via Scottish Government and the European Social Fund (ESF).

The apprentices with David Burrows (centre)
Both Jordan and Chris were selected by interview from a number of candidates registered with the Inverclyde Community Development Trust, all of whom had sadly had their apprenticeships terminated before completion. Along with The Trust and Construction Industry Training Board, River Clyde Homes managed to secure the funding that will allow Jordan and Chris to complete their apprenticeships.
David Burrows, property services manager at River Clyde Homes said: “This has been a really positive initiative for River Clyde Homes be involved in. There is nothing worse for aspiring youngsters than to have their apprenticeship stopped, when it is outwith their own control.
“This scheme gave us the chance to continue to provide opportunities and sustainability in the local workforce. Allowing these two young men the opportunity to complete their apprenticeships underlines our commitment to investing in the talents of local young people.”

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Bield puts value in volunteers

Bield is highlighting the important role that volunteers can play in assisting older people to enjoy happy and fulfilled lives.
With developments spread across Scotland, Bield has launched an appeal to find friendly and enthusiastic volunteers to help out with a range of volunteer work such as social activities assistants, befrienders and tech savvy assistants for its Silver Surfer Project.
In particular, Bield are keen to recruit new volunteers at Bonnethill Gardens – a very sheltered development in Dundee.
Implementing programmes of social activities have proven to be a huge success, allowing tenants to enjoy the opportunity to interact and socialise with others in their development and community.
Bield’s volunteer social activity assistants are vital to ensuring to the smooth running of social events organised by a development, such as games afternoons, bingo nights and DVD afternoons; while volunteer befrienders are key to combating tenant isolation as they provide one-on-one companionship for a tenant over coffees, walks or any other activity.
Befrienders also boost the confidence of tenants by accompanying them to various social events, encouraging them to interact and socialise with others in their development or wider community.
Jeni Sinclair, volunteer development worker for Bield, said: “Our befrienders and activity assistants are an integral part of our volunteering scheme as both roles encourage tenants to get out and about and meet new people, which we believe is very important.”
Another popular feature for tenants is Bield’s silver surfer tutors – a project that teaches tenants how to use modern technology, such as iPads and PC’s, allowing them to keep up with friends and family, as well as surf the net at their leisure.
Jeni said of the silver surfer project: “This project is incredibly important as it opens up a whole new digital world for our tenants.
“We look to ensure our tutors work at the pace of the tenant meaning they learn at a speed that is comfortable for them.
“Tutors are great because they teach tenants how to do so many new and exciting things such as surfing the net, buying groceries online and how to email and Skype friends and family.”
Along with looking to recruit volunteer Silver Surfer Tutors; Bield’s Bonnethill Gardens in Dundee are also looking for volunteer social activity assistants to help with games afternoons, bingo nights and DVD afternoons, as well as for silver surfer tutors to help out at the development.
Tracy Murray, manager at Bield’s Bonnethill Gardens, said: “Having volunteers at our development is very important as it means that we can carry out more activities with greater help.
“We like to vary our activities each week for tenants and games such as bingo or beetle drive are great fun and give tenants the chance to have a cup of tea and chat with their neighbours.
“We are always looking for ways to enrich the lives of our tenants and the positive feedback we have received proves that this programme is incredibly beneficial and rewarding for our tenants and our volunteers.”
Bield’s volunteering team in Dundee has been so successful that Jeni Sinclair and her team have recently received the Volunteer Friendly Award from the Volunteer Centre Dundee.

This award is an acknowledgement of the excellent efforts made by the volunteering team in Dundee to select volunteers to work in different roles across various developments in the city.
Jeni said: “Volunteers play an incredibly important role within Bield as they assist with important things such as activities and social interaction within our services and developments.
 “Volunteers really highlight and share our belief that we can better the lives of the people who use our services and so their help and contribution to Bield is priceless.”

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Help to Adapt pilot scheme

Link Group, working closely with its subsidiary Horizon, has been awarded a contract by Scottish Government to deliver its pilot Help to Adapt Scheme.
Help to Adapt is a Scottish Government scheme designed to make it easier and safer for older people to use the equity in their own homes to pay for adaptations and to encourage older people to be proactive in adapting their home to enable their long term independence.
The Help to Adapt staff team will be led by a Contract Manager and homeowners will be supported by a dedicated case worker, occupational therapist who will help assess and recommend adaptations where appropriate, and technical experts.
The Contract Manager position is advertised in the Jobs section below.
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