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Caithness News Bulletins November 2004

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COUNCIL WELCOMES MEMBERSHIP OF COMMUNITY OWNERSHIP PROGRAMME
Acceptance into the Scottish Executive's Community Ownership Programme has been welcomed by The Highland Council, whose membership promises funding of an extra 50 million over the next five years to deliver an extra 1,000 affordable houses for rent and low cost home ownership

In addition the Council's current housing debt of 175million (one of the highest debt levels in Scotland) will be written off if tenants vote in favour of transfer. Currently 47 pence of every pound of rent collected is used to pay off historic debt. This will allow a significant increase in the proportion of rent which can be spend on house maintenance and investment.

Membership will require the Council to develop proposals for the transfer of ownership and management of its stock of 15,500 Council houses to a new Highland landlord.

The Council is currently assessing the investment needs to bring the housing stock up to the new Scottish Housing Quality Standard within a 10 year period. Transferring the housing stock will release additional resources to invest in any required improvements to the stock. The Council is also developing proposals for stock transfer that will allow community involvement in housing management and allow second stage transfers of ownership to smaller area or community-based organisations where there is a demand for this from communities.

Councillor Margaret Davidson, Chairman of the Council's Housing and Social Work Committee, said: "I am delighted that the Council has now joined the Community Ownership Programme. I am convinced that housing stock transfer presents the best long term option for the Council, for people in housing need, for our communities the length and breadth of the Highlands and most importantly for our existing Highland tenants. We are now moving full steam ahead to develop proposals to put to our tenants. We are committed to working with them to make sure they get full and impartial advice and that they have all the information they need to make an informed choice when they are asked to vote in a ballot. We understand that many tenants will have concerns about the possibility of stock transfer. I can assure all tenants that if transfer proceeds rents will be kept affordable, services will be maintained or improved and tenants will keep their existing statutory rights including the right to buy their existing houses."

Councillor Sheena Slimon, Depute Chairman (Housing,) added: "This is very good news for the Highlands. In many of our communities we have acute and worsening housing need. The lack of affordable housing for rent and low cost home ownership is also inhibiting economic growth in many areas. An extra 1,000 homes may not solve all our problems but it will make a significant impact. The Council agreed to join the Community Ownership Programme by a significant majority.  I hope now that all our communities will get behind this decision and help make it happen. The potential long term benefits to the Highlands are enormous."

Bill Fernie councillor for Wick West and Caithness area chairman of Housing and Social Work said: "The injection of this significant sum of money into the Highlands will significantly improve the housing stock and add a much needed 1000 houses.  It will also open up more opportunities for the building trade with the council being in a position to offer contracts on a scale not seen for some years.  There is a significant amount of work to be done to prepare for a transfer and in ensuring that tenants feel secure in the new arrangements before they reach the ballot.  This opportunity is one that needs to be firmly grasped by everyone and there is plenty of time to ensure that there are safeguards in place for tenants and staff who work in the council housing department.  Without the shackle of debt that the council has had to work under the new housing agencies taking over the stock will be in good position to build yet more affordable housing and that has to be good for the population and for work opportunities for the next few years following the stock transfer.

The Highland Council decided on 28 October to apply to join the Community Ownership Programme~ following extensive consideration and consultation. There was a majority of 55:15 in favour of joining the Community Ownership Programme.

Transfer will only happen following a ballot of tenants ~ decided by majority of those who vote. The ballot is expected to be in October 2006.