Well, I broke the story here first back in January and the press finally got to it, with the Evening Mail running a front-page headline story on the council housing rent problems on Saturday. Normally, I'd link to it, but the on-line edition of the Mail doesn't appear to carry it.
Anyway, following on from my story about the Tory/Liberal Democrat coalition moving the goalposts on council house rents - now to be collected two weeks in advance rather than in arrears, as they have been for half a century. The reasoning for this shift? Simply to push some extra money into the housing revenue account to reduce the amount apparently outstanding in arrears.
What's happened now is that the council have issued letters to those who have failed to bring their accounts up to date reminding them that they need to sort it out. Not unreasonable, but rather than sending the letters out to the 6500 tenants genuinely in arrears, the letter was sent to all 73,000 tenants warning them that "action will be taken to recover any outstanding rent" unless it is brought up to date by the end of the month.
Needless to say, this scared the living daylights out of tenants - many of them elderly or on low incomes - and neighbourhood offices and council switchboards were besieged with visitors and callers. Offices that normally see 50-100 visitors a day were getting 50 every half hour. Tempers frayed and it got so bad that an immediate walk-out by staff at one office was only narrowly avoided. Telephone lines that deal with under 100 callers a day were melting under the pressure, forcing workers to spend their entire working day on the phone calming worried tenants.
It is my understanding that the situation is actually worse than the Mail painted it - I believe that not one, but THREE letters in a similar vein went out.
Another disgraceful performance by the council and one that can be laid at the door of the elected members, not the officers (although the councillors will try to shift the blame).
One excuse I heard was that it was a computer error. Perhaps if the Cabinet Member whose portfolio includes ICT and customer service would spend more time doing his well-paid job, rather than worrying about the price of carpets or the chances of him winning Yardley for the Liberal Democrats, it might not have happened.