Today's Scottish news (April 23)

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ECO proposals ‘will cut £50m of support’ for Scotland’s fuel poor

Proposed changes to Energy Company Obligation (ECO) will hit Scotland’s most vulnerable households the hardest, the Scottish Government has claimed.

The UK Government’s own analysis states that spending by energy companies under the ECO is expected to be cut by around £500 million a year across Great Britain. This would mean a reduction of around £50m a year in Scotland based on its population.

The Scottish Government said there will be a shift away from the kind of measures needed by many fuel poor households in Scotland, such as insulation for hard to treat cavities and solid walls, in favour of cheaper measures.

This, it argues, will hit Scotland’s poorest households hardest, with fewer funds available to cover current measures used to tackle fuel poverty.

Speaking ahead of a Fuel Poverty Debate today, Housing and Welfare Minister Margaret Burgess said: “Changes to the UK Government’s ECO will significantly reduce resources, cutting expenditure in Scotland for energy efficiency and fuel poverty measures and will put further improvements in serious danger.

“The cut to ECO of around £50m will have serious consequences for homes in fuel poverty and jobs in Scotland.

“Insulating hard to treat cavities and solid walls is essential to making progress in reducing emissions from housing and helping families struggling with energy bills.”

Mrs Burgess (pictured) added: “We believe that a more comprehensive and fairer service for those vulnerable to fuel poverty can be provided with a properly planned and Government funded service, working with delivery partners, which is our approach through the Home Energy Efficiency Programmes for Scotland. This is far better than relying on the kind of market incentive system favoured by the UK Government.”

Housing Regulator calls for affordable rents to protect financial health

The Scottish Housing Regulator has today urged registered social landlords to protect their financial health by ensuring that rents stay affordable.
Recent research published by the Regulator showed that rents were rising faster than inflation and arrears, bad debts and voids had all increased.
Speaking in Edinburgh today at a conference organised by the Institute of Chartered Accountants of Scotland (ICAS), Ian Brennan, director of finance and risk, said: “Affordable rents are important for tenants but increasingly we are seeing how important they are for the financial health of landlords. In the face of higher costs from pensions, the uncertainty associated with welfare reform and the changing lending market we welcome the fact that many RSLs are telling us that they are doing everything they can to drive out costs before asking tenants for more rent.”
The Regulator also commented that it had not consented to two RSLs to grant security over assets to a pension provider. In both cases it did not consider that tenants’ interests would have been served by giving its consent. These are the first such applications that the Regulator has considered.
In a wide-ranging speech, Mr Brennan also described the work that the Regulator had been doing with existing and potential lenders and noted the recent entry to the sector of a number of new providers of finance.
He said: “We see the growth in the number of lenders as an indicator of the ability of RSLs to attract finance despite the current challenging economic conditions.”

Affordable housing plan for Arbroath

Angus Council has unveiled plans for new affordable homes in Arbroath.

The empty property at 22-30 Millgate Loan will be upgraded to provide a total of 12 flats comprising of 11 one bedroom flats and 1 two bedroom flat.

The upgraded property will include the installation of new fitted kitchens, new showers, double glazing and the replacement of heating systems, internal and external doors. In addition, the properties will also benefit from new wall, floor and loft insulation as well as a full internal redecoration.

Welcoming the news, Councillor Donald Morrison, neighbourhood services convener, said: “It is great to see this development progress as this building has been empty for some time, which is not a great sight near the centre of any town. Each new affordable home provided in the county will help reduce the pressure on our waiting list and it is also particularly encouraging to see our emphasis on energy efficiency being delivered which will ensure future tenants have low fuel costs in the years to come and is good news for the environment.”

Work is anticipated to start on site in August 2014.

The project costs of £700,000 will comprise of £420,000 from the Scottish Government Affordable Housing Grant and £280,000 from the council.

Plans to help ‘bedroom tax’ tenants in arrears agreed by Dundee councillors

Plans to extend a scheme to prevent the eviction of tenants who have fallen into rent arrears as a result of the ‘bedroom tax’ have been agreed by Dundee City Council.

The move was agreed by the council for a 12-month period last March and councillors have now extended the policy.

However, they were unable to achieve a consensus on their attitudes towards the wider issue of welfare reform when the independence referendum was brought into the debate.

In March last year the council decided not to seek to evict tenants whose housing benefit was being cut under the UK Government’s under-occupancy rules.

The Scottish Government has since said it will make £15 million available to social landlords to increase discretionary housing payments (DHPs) for tenants, making up for their lost income.

Dundee City Council’s scheme will now continue until it has been able to assess guidance on how this funding will be allocated.

A report on welfare reform presented to the policy and resources committee noted that 1,873 tenancies had been hit by the under-occupancy rules and 1,197 of them were in rent arrears, with the total owed coming to more than £440,000.

Some 837 people have received discretionary housing payments, with another 268 claims refused.

A spokesman for the Bin the Bedroom Tax campaign said it had been a “tremendous victory” when MSPs voted to provide funding for DHPs.

“This 100 per cent mitigation should have been the green light for councils and housing associations to immediately inform all tenants that they do not have to pay the ‘bedroom tax’,” he said.

“This has not been done, creating confusion, increased stress and worry among the 3,000-plus tenants in Dundee affected, many of whom are still being told they should be paying the ‘bedroom tax’ and face the prospect of falling yet further into rent arrears.”

A council report said staff had visited households and sent at least three letters to try to engage with tenants.

SNP administration leader Ken Guild proposed a motion recognising the “devastating impact” of welfare changes, but also supporting a vote for independence in September’s referendum to allow the removal of such policies.

This was passed with the SNP group’s 15 votes, with opposition councillors from the unionist parties either opposed or not voting.

Government summit to tackle payday lending

Plans to reduce the numbers of payday lenders on the high street will be discussed at Scotland’s first Payday Lending Summit in Glasgow today.

Representatives from local authorities, financial advice services, welfare organisations and credit unions will gather for the inaugural event to talk about ways of revitalising town centres by minimising the presence of payday lenders.

The impacts of payday lending shops, the need to develop regulation and review new planning and licensing approaches to prevent individuals from spiralling into debit, will be among the topics on the summit’s agenda.

There are an estimated 180 to 200 payday lending premises on Scotland’s high streets.

Speaking ahead of the event at the Trades Hall in Glasgow, Local Government Minister Derek Mackay (pictured) said: “Up and down the country payday loan companies are blighting our town centres and exposing vulnerable people to credit they cannot afford.

“The StepChange Debt Charity’s recent report found that 13 million people in the UK face chronic financial insecurity and knowing that a small change in personal circumstances would within weeks push them into debt.

“The Scottish Government is already taking steps to tackle this issue through legislation, with the Bankruptcy and Debt Bill 2013 now awaiting Royal assent, and we have used our devolved powers to remove business rates relief from pay lenders with premises in Scottish towns.

“But we are committed to doing more. Since we announced our summit in January we have received a great deal of support from local authorities and stakeholders who are keen to share their experiences of debt. We want Scotland to lead the way and address this damaging activity so we will be looking at preventative measures and discussing projects which are working successfully in different local authority areas.

“Just this week we heard evidence of organised crime involved in payday loans. We want to stamp this out and review the regulations.

“Tackling the increasing numbers of payday lending businesses will not only stop more people being driven into poverty, but will help give our town centres a sense of identity and be more attractive places for people to live, work and visit.”

Citizens Advice Scotland urged banks to provide alternative to payday loans by making overdrafts “clearer, cheaper, and fairer”.

At present, the lack of affordable alternative to high-interest, high-charges credit available to thousands of people in Scotland is a major driver in the growth of the payday loans industry, and the resulting problem debts Citizens Advice Bureaux across the country are seeing.

Susan McPhee, head of policy and communications for Citizens Advice Scotland, who will be addressing today’s summit said: “Payday loans are causing real misery for thousands of people in Scotland, and we have evidence of too many lenders using unscrupulous practices.  Today’s summit will look at ways that action can be taken at a Scottish Government and local government level to end the proliferation of this problem lending and CAS are pleased to be part of that process.

"Bureaux across Scotland continue to see an average of 100 clients a week who have problems with payday loans. Sadly, all too often, our clients feel they have no alternative when they need to borrow.

“We are calling on banks to provide clearer, cheaper, and fairer overdrafts for their clients so they have an alternative to turning to payday lenders when they need access to short term credit. We are also calling on banks to become more flexible by making relatively small, short-term and affordable loans available to all of their clients.

“In spite of many banks claiming they want to ‘serve Scotland’ and ‘be at the heart of their communities’, most of them are not living up to these promises.  While we admire the stated aims, banks need to put actions behind their words.

“If banks take their corporate responsibilities seriously, they will listen to these calls.  Too many people who end up coming to their CAB have been let down by the mainstream banking sector, and we want to see an end to that.”

Praise for Abertay Housing Association sheltered housing service

Abertay Housing Association has been given a “very good” rating for its sheltered housing service.

Recent improvements included installing electronic entry systems to allow quicker access for out-of-hours services such as community alarm.

A Care Inspectorate report said: “This is a well run and high-quality service which is committed to promoting tenant involvement, safety and community involvement. It was clear that the health and social wellbeing of users is at the core of what this service does.”

River Clyde Homes joins Twitter

River Clyde Homes, the Inverclyde-based housing association, has joined the world of social networking and set up a Twitter account @rivclydehomes.

As well as being a way of improving communications with customers the aim is to promote housing and advice services as well as the activities of partner organisations who share a vision of Inverclyde being a place of choice in which to work, rest and play.

Keith Moore, communications manager, said: “We are excited about this communications development as it will bring us closer to our customers. We hope too that it will allow us to share information with other housing associations and look forward to talking with others in the sector via Twitter.”

Trussell Trust sees rise in donations following investigation

The largest food bank provider in Britain has seen donations soar by over 1000 per cent after a national newspaper ran an investigation on the charity.

A widely criticised Mail on Sunday article that attacked the Trussell Trust was followed by more than £57,000 in donations to the charity.

The MoS, which sent in an undercover journalist to claim food, argued that "scroungers" are abusing the charity and flouting its rules. The undercover journalist managed to claim a food parcel by claiming he was unemployed.

The MoS raged that the charity didn't do any background checks on the reporter and happily handed over the food.

The paper questioned the charity's recent claim that nearly one million people turned to its food banks in 2013-2014.

However, the MoS's attempt to undermine the charity backfired drastically, with social media networks reacting strongly to the article.

One donator said: "Keep up the amazing work you do. I find the recent attempts to slander foodbanks utterly vile."

Reacting to the article, the charity said: "The Trussell Trust feels that these undercover methods, used by Daily Mail journalists, to enter the premises of our voluntarily run food banks is an unacceptable attempt to tarnish not only the name of the Trussell Trust, but also the valuable efforts of the 30,000 volunteers who selflessly give up their time to provide a valuable service to people in real need."

Gross mortgage lending increases 37 per cent year-on-year

Gross mortgage lending reached an estimated £15.4 billion in March, according to new figures from the Council of Mortgage Lenders (CML).

The figure is 4 per cent higher than February’s gross lending total and 33 per cent higher than March last year (£11.6bn).

Gross mortgage lending for the first quarter of this year was therefore an estimated £46.3bn, which represents a 10 per cent decrease from the last three months of 2013, but a 37 per cent increase on the first quarter of 2013 (£33.8bn).

CML chief economist Bob Pannell (pictured) said: "Alongside benign developments in the wider UK economy and the labour market, housing market sentiment continues to strengthen.

"There are currently no signs of significant market disruption, arising from the imminent application of new lending rules associated with the Mortgage Market Review. While some mortgage lending indicators have eased back gently, this is from the very high levels of recent months.

"The Financial Policy Committee continues to be vigilant to housing market developments, and to remind the market of its ability to act before problems to financial stability set in."