THOUSANDS of Winchester tenants have been hit with an inflation-busting rent rise.
City housing officers recommended councillors push ahead with plans for a 4.2 per cent rise from April 2013, meaning an average increase of £4.12 a week.
More than 5,000 households will be affected.
Jenny Meadows, chief executive officer at Winchester's Citizens Advice Bureau, said: “This is just one more pressure on low income families, especially when there are significant welfare reform changes coming up this year that will further squeeze family budgets.”
Cllr Stephen Godfrey, portfolio holder for finance, told a full council meeting on January 9 that Winchester's housing accounts were in good shape, prompting some to question why the rises were necessary.
Lib Dem Councillor Brian Collin said: “Certainly it might be difficult to justify some of these increases to tenants. This increase will be a very difficult pill to swallow.”
Labour Cllr Chris Pines said: “It might leave the housing revenue accounts in a healthy position but the same cannot be said of tenants: they will not be in a healthy position. The poor are yet again paying. At the very least we must call for heavy monitoring of costs to make sure we're getting the best value for money.”
John Merritt, president of the Solent Credit Union, which covers Winchester and Southampton, said: “There is an ongoing flow of people coming to us with rent problems. Every month we get two or three people who have problems meeting their council rents. But universal credit is causing the most concern amongst people coming to us.”
From 2013 universal credit will begin to replace the main means-tested benefits and tax credits, meaning money will be paid direct to claimants in one cash lump.
“Universal credit will affect people on limited budgets and their priorities are very immediate: they need food and things like that. When universal credit comes in people may prioritise things like food over their rent, and that's a real issue,” Mr Merritt said.
But housing leaders defended the hike, insisting it was necessary in accordance with the city's 30-year business plan, which proposes an annual increase of inflation plus 0.5 per cent. Housing chiefs also want to achieve a 'target rent' to better reflect market values, local economic conditions and the number of bedrooms.
A previous report stated that council rents are on average 35 per cent of the private sector.
Housing boss Ian Tait said he had been reluctant to support the measure, but felt it necessary if new homes were to be delivered.
He said: “I don't think the situation is quite as Jenny Meadows is suggesting.
“The figures for people in rent arrears are less than one per cent of our tenants. Rather than say 'anyone on housing benefit is incapable of dealing with their own finances', as Conservatives we believe that an individual should control their own lives and that includes benefits.”
Residents' group TACT has previously expressed concern about planned rent rises, though chairman Judith Steventon Baker was philosophical yesterday (January 15). She said: “I don't think anybody is happy. But the investment in maintenance and repairs will continue. These things cost money.”
Council leader Keith Wood said: “For some years we have not been in a position to do the essential repairs but now we're in a position, we will have the money so we should be grateful and not carp on too much about it.”