By Daniel Holland | LDRS

Council bosses are under pressureto axe a rent hike labelled a “slap in the face” to more than 25,000 Newcastle households while the COVID-19 pandemic is still raging.

Newcastle City Council is planning to up rent bills for its council houses by 1.5% from April, an average weekly increase of £1.16 for 25,116 households.

But opponents have urged the Labour-run council to abandon the idea, warning that it will increase pressure on many of Tyneside’s most vulnerable people during a time of crisis.

Renters’ union ACORN called for the proposals, due to be approved at a cabinet meeting next week, to be scrapped and said many social housing tenants are already struggling due to the devastating impact of lockdown.

This is the second year running that the council has proposed a rent hike for Your Homes Newcastle tenants, though the current proposals are less severe than the 2.7% rise imposed in 2020, and bosses say the change is needed to pay for upgrades to ageing properties.

City housing chiefs also plan to implement a 1.5% increase for service charges, garage rents, fees for the Ostara emergency response service, and heating bills for 2,253 properties covered by a district heating system in Byker.

Elgan John, co-chair of ACORN Newcastle, said: “This further increase in charges for a non-existent service during a time when poverty is worsening in the city is a slap in the face.

“As noted by the English Housing survey, social housing tenants are more likely to be “clinically vulnerable” (as they define it) than private rented tenants, meaning they are harder hit by the pandemic crisis, both because of the need to shield and because shielding is associated with increased costs of living at a time when many have faced decreases in working hours or a lower salary due to being furloughed at less than 100%.

“These tenants do not deserve a further erosion in their ability to make ends meet, least of all at the hands of their local authority.”

For most tenants, the changes will mean a weekly rent increase of between £1 and £1.49 – though a handful will face an increase of than £2.50 per week.

Prior to last year, council home rent rates in Newcastle had been cut by 1% each year since 2016 – drops that the authority said cost it £24 million in income.

A council spokesperson said on Monday: “We must raise revenue if we are to invest in our housing stock. Most of our 25,000 houses were built before the 1980s and are in continual need of upgrade and improvement.

“We also have a growing population and as people live longer their homes need to be adapted so they can maintain their independence. We expect the demand for social housing to continue to rise as a result of the economic fallout of the pandemic, and so must continue to invest so tenants have decent living conditions.

“From 2016-2020 there was a 1% government imposed decrease in council rents in Newcastle, but this cannot continue indefinitely.

“We have a comprehensive range of measures to support families who are struggling as a result of the pandemic and always encourage tenants to talk to Your Homes Newcastle if they experience difficulties paying their rent. We will continue that approach irrespective of any rent rise.”

The city’s Lib Dem opposition said that showing restraint on rent increases was “more necessary than ever” this year.

The group’s deputy leader, Cllr Colin Ferguson, said: “It beggars belief that, at next week’s cabinet meeting, the Labour administration will discuss the financial hardship many families are facing in their welfare reform paper, before swiftly moving on to piling more financial challenge onto over 25,000 people in Newcastle.

“Cabinet is right to note rising numbers on Universal Credit as a result of COVID-19, and to express concern that food bank usage is up 250%. The pandemic is decimating the economy, and taking away people’s livelihoods. So how then can they justify pushing up council housing rents by the maximum they’re allowed to?”