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Reporting local life since 1854

Thursday, November 24, 2011

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Inquiry into hospital death

HOSE ABOUT THIS, MR LEMUR? SEE PAGE 4

Picture: Clare Jennings

Officers will be sent to tenants’ homes to stop debts spiralling

COUNCIL IS OWED £3.6m IN RENT

BY ALEX CAMPBELL

alex.campbell@thesentinel.co.uk

MORE than £3.6 million in unpaid council rent is owed to a cash-strapped authority by 9,521 tenants. Stoke-on-Trent City Council is to start sending officers to tenants’ houses within three days of them falling into debt to try to stop the arrears soaring. Figures revealed today show arrears have more than doubled from £1.6 million in 2006/07. The council is now owed £1.8 million by 5,667 current residents; at an average of £318 each. It is also chasing £1.8 million owed by 3,854 former residents; more than £467 each. Stoke-on-Trent has 19,000 council houses, with 3,200 people on waiting lists. News of the soaring rent arrears comes days after the authority revealed its £24 million savings programme which plans to

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shut care homes, increase council tax and lead to hundreds of redundancies. Rent arrears have spiralled since the council centralised collections five years ago and began relying on computers to send out warning letters. Val Bourne, assistant director of housing services, said: “The connection with tenants was taken away. “It became very much an automated process, made worse by a reduction in staff. “Within days an officer will now knock on the door and talk to people about why they are not paying their rent instead of letting it drag on for weeks and become a problem they don’t want to face. “We don’t want to evict people. We want them to keep their tenancies.” A review of rent collection by ARREARS: Assistant director of housing services Val Bourne.

Vanguard Consulting found there were 111 stages in the council’s recovery process, but only 15 steps were necessary. And warning letters were routinely being sent to tenants with direct debit agreements; even though rent was being automatically paid within days. Under the new system housing officers will be retrained, moved to the council’s Local Centres, and made to visit tenants as soon as they slip behind on payments to discuss payment plans. The policy will be introduced across the city from December after a trial in parts of Goldenhill, Tunstall, Sandyford and Chell. The Sentinel revealed last week how up to £9 million in unpaid council tax will be sold as a package to debt management companies who will send in bailiffs to recover it. Independent councillor Randy Conteh said: “The reality is we need to get the rent arrears debt down and not just intervene, but stop it happening.”

Councillor Dave Conway, leader of the opposition City Independents, said the authority must not give up on collecting rent it is already owed. The council said it would continue to pursue the arrears through the courts. Mr Conway added: “A mortgage lender wouldn’t write off £3.6 million and neither should the council.” Jim Gibson, chairman of Chell Heath Residents’ Association, is a council house tenant himself and always pays his rent on time. He said: “If they are offering help and advice as well, then anything that prevents someone losing their home is a good thing. There are genuine cases. “But people shouldn’t be allowed to milk the system. It surprises me that the council has allowed this to go on.”

Should tenants be evicted for failing to pay their rent? Email us at letters@ thesentinel.co.uk Comment: Page 10

DETECTIVES are investigating the death of a 57year-old woman at a scandalhit NHS hospital. The patient died on October 13 at Stafford Hospital, which is the subject of an ongoing public inquiry after reports of appalling levels of care and high death rates. Staffordshire Police said a post-mortem examination was inconclusive and tests were under way to establish a cause of death. A force spokesman said: “Officers are conducting an inquiry into the death of a 57-year-old Cannock woman at the hospital on October 13.” Manjit Obhrai, medical director at Mid Staffordshire NHS Foundation Trust, which runs the hospital, said: “The trust reported this incident to the coroner, who has asked the police to investigate.” A trust spokesman said two members of hospital staff had been suspended.

FOLLOW THE STAR: Matt Cardle will switch on Hanley’s lights.

Thousands due for lights show THOUSANDS of people were expected in Hanley tonight for the Christmas lights switch on. X Factor winner Matt Cardle is headlining the event. Britain’s Next Top Model winner Jade Thompson was also due to take to the stage in her home city, alongside Stoke City and Port Vale footballers. Councillor Terry Follows, Stoke-on-Trent Lord Mayor, will lead the countdown to the switch-on, in Fountain Square.

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