Westmeath councillors were shocked to hear at their December meeting that up to 75% of council tenants could be facing rent increases in February following an extensive review of the council's rent scheme, with one councillor describing the move as “a power grab by the Executive.”
Independent Cllr Paul Hogan, robustly challenged Chief Executive Pat Gallagher on the issue of whether the decision to review the rents of local authority tenants is an executive or a reserved function.
“In my time on this council I certainly voted on the rent scheme in the past, so how come we as councillors have no say at all now?” he asked. “This is a power grab by the Executive, it is completely unacceptable.”
The meeting heard that 169 tenants are facing rent increases in excess of €41, while a further 318 will experience increases of between €20 and €40. Some 1,207 tenants will pay an extra €20 per week, while the Chief Executive said 339 tenants will actually have their weekly rents reduced.
Pat Gallagher said the council had written to every tenant in an effort to ascertain details of their household income, and he revealed that the 108 tenants who had not responded to the council request for information (despite getting two reminder letters) will be required to pay “the maximum rent.”
Cllr Una D'Arcy expressed her outrage at the figures outlined by the Chief Executive and said it was the duty of the council “to protect people, and we are not protecting people with these increases” she said.
Cllr D'Arcy said there were people “putting their dogs in the dog pound in tears” because they had to give up their accommodation and move home to live with their parents as they couldn't afford to pay the rent.
“I have 100% faith in Cllr Hogan when he says this is a matter for us, the elected representatives, to vote on, and not an Executive decision,” she added.
Cllr Ken Glynn said he would like it to be “put on the record” that he was completely dissatisfied with the rent review plan.
“I am hugely concerned that we appear to have no say at all in this matter” said Cllr Glynn, who was also highly critical of the Housing Assistance Payment (HAP) Scheme.
It was agreed that the council would write to Minister Eoghan Murphy seeking clarification on whether the decision to review rents is a reserved or executive function, but Chief Executive, Pat Gallagher said he was “quite satisfied” that he had “a sound legal basis” on which to proceed with the new rent scheme in February.
The CEO explained that all council rents are based on a system called 'differential rents'. This means that the amount a tenant pays depends on the amount of their household income.
"The more you earn the more you pay, and vice versa," said Pat Gallagher, who added that the last time differential rents were reviewed in Westmeath was in 2012, "so the longer the review is left the harder it is for all tenants" he said.