Presented by the Assistant Director of Housing (ADH), John Knight, the report outlined the Council’s current garage stock. Out of the 2505 garages, 637 were void although 85 of this was now fit to let. Appearance and usage of the garages needed to be addressed and funding was needed to fix the most derelict garages.
There was a potential proposal to allocate funds to fix garages in the next financial year. The garages needed improvement to make them more acceptable to the public and encourage use of them. As there was a small sum of money currently available, the ADH invited the Committee to suggest the most derelict garages in need of immediate repair and decoration.
Councillor Redsell welcomed the report as it had been long awaited and stated that some garages just needed a coat of paint to improve its appearance. She questioned why Baily Garner had been used to gather the information provided and what the company did. The ADH explained that Baily Garner had been used to perform the Stock Condition Survey of the Council’s housing stock which had been presented at the last Committee meeting. Garages had been included the survey and the data had been extrapolated for maintenance and repair works.
As non-Council tenants were charged a higher rate than Council tenants for the use of garages, Councillor Redsell queried the reason for this. The ADH answered VAT was charged to non-Council tenants and social landlords would generally offer a lower price to Council tenants. Thurrock Council was a commercial council and would look to generate revenue where it was reasonable to do so. Council tenants were charged lower as they had a commitment to council properties and were stakeholders in the community.
Councillor Redsell was concerned on what was stored within garages and suggested letting garages to residents within the Borough and not outside of the Borough. She said there needed to be a way to check what was stored in garages. Understanding her concern, the ADH replied that some of the plots were no longer council owned as they had been sold. In the lease agreements, the service would need to notify the occupier of an intention to go into the garages if necessary. If reports of substances or concerns of contents inside were called in, the service would investigate. The service did not require occupiers to issue what contents were stored inside and could not make the assumption that people outside the Borough would use the garages any different to how someone within the Borough would. Referring back to charges of garage use, the ADH suggested the service could look into separate rates for a Thurrock resident, non-Thurrock resident and a Thurrock Council tenant.
Referring to the council’s housing stock, Councillor Allen commented that with the 10,000 stock of houses and 2,000 stock of garages, that would mean a quarter of the garages could only be supplied to households. Possibly less as 22% of the garages were not fit for purpose. Regarding Councillor Redsell’s earlier comment, he went on to say that there should be a degree of confidentiality on what was stored inside garages as long as there was nothing illegal. Agreeing with the ADH’s comment on Thurrock Council being a commercial council, Councillor Allen posed the suggestion of purchasing a new set of garages and whether it would make a good return of revenue.
In response, the ADH said there was a need to intervene in the use of garages of anything illegal was stored. He acknowledged that the garages were not fit for parking due to the small space and that car parking was an issue within the Borough. There had not been the consideration of purchasing a new set of garages but he would take this suggestion back to the service. Councillor Allen commented on the need to renew the current void stock of garages that were rotting away and unfit to be let especially as some were over 40 years old. A new set of garages would be worthwhile as they would have at least a 50 year lifespan.
Adding to this, the Chair suggested this could be something the Prudential Fund could look in to investing. Regarding the amount of void garages, the ADH stated that this number had reduced so the number unfit for letting was now lower. The works would be done on those that could still be let and would look at options for each one.
Councillor Pothecary raised the following questions:
1. Did the garages pay for themselves?
2. If funds were invested into the garages, would that cover the costs of maintenance and repair that was required? She was concerned there was a chance they would fall back into disrepair after. She mentioned fees and charges that had been placed on tenants before and was concerned on feedback from people awaiting repairs, new kitchens and bathrooms on the Transforming Homes programme. There needed to be a clear business case into investing money into garages and whether any funds from the Housing Revenue Account (HRA) was being spent on garages.
3. Instead of putting funds in to fix the garages, would it be better to knock them down and invest in building car parks? This would be more useful as people did not tend to park cars in garages. She mentioned the need to build more homes within the Borough which may not be wise to invest money in garages.
The ADH responded that there was no proposal within the report to charge tenants more for the use of garages. An unallocated budget had been left to spend on improving garages and a balance had to be struck on the work to be done although it may not yield any revenue. The work to be done would be more decorative in terms of a coat of paint to maintain the garages. New build homes could be constructed with garages as it was the standard to include new builds with parking spaces. The current garages did pay for themselves which was just under £1 million.
Referring to the 85 void garages that were fit for let, the Chair said there was more supply than demand. Referencing the four P’s of business – price, place, product and promotion, the Chair thought the price was good but there seemed to be no demand for the garages. He queried whether the garages were placed in the wrong place, if the condition was too poor or if they were just not being promoted enough. The ADH stated that people were able to register their interest in a garage online but there was a culture of waiting for the one they wanted. In answer to promotion, the ADH explained that the service could contact interested parties about garages outside of their specified areas so they were aware and encouraged customers outside the Borough to be more flexible in their choice of garage. The Chair went on to say that the service had to be careful of increasing garage rental prices as it could result in less people renting. The ADH replied the service would look to phase this in and that benchmarking would be carried out beforehand.
Councillor Redsell made the suggestion of turning the garages into houses. Councillor Allen also suggested a large site by Prince Phillip Avenue in Stifford Clays that could be utilised for new garages and homes.
1.1 That the Housing Overview and Scrutiny Committee commented on the information in the report, and on the options and forward actions described.