CHANGES to the way service charges for elderly residents in retirement villages are communicated are afoot following a review by St Helens Council.

There are four retirement villages in St Helens that are owned and managed by two housing associations, Your Housing Group (YHG) and Torus.

Retirement villages provide community living and 24-hour care, usually for people aged 55 years or older, and have grown in popularity over the past decade.

A review focusing on owners and shared owners of retirement village properties was carried out by St Helens Council earlier this year.

This was undertaken following concerns from residents over the various service and maintenance charges and the sinking fund charge, which is payable on the sale of a property.

Cabinet’s response to the review was presented to members at its last meeting by Cllr Anthony Burns, cabinet member for community based and focused services.

“It’s really encouraging to see that the housing providers acknowledged that further work is needed, and we look forward to working with them to ensure this work is carried out,” Cllr Burns said.

The Haydock councillor said it was “encouraging” that housing providers have committed to work on improving communication with residents, citing the established Residents Association at YHG’s Reeve Court in Rainhill.

However, Cllr Burns urged Torus to create and facilitate a new residents committee at Heald Farm Court in Earlestown.

He also said it is “disappointing” that a new committee hasn’t been set up at the YHG-owned Heyeswood Retirement Village in Haydock, after the previous one was dissolved in May.

The option to establish a new committee at Heyeswood was discussed with residents at a meeting in June 2018, according to the council report.

Despite offering to help set up a formal committee, YHG claims there has been no interest from residents to do so.

Cllr Burns said: “Your Housing do indicate that it will continue to pursue residents to get this set up, but this is something we all need to keep an eye on to ensure it happens.

“Communication really is the key here and our residents in these places need to be able to raise their concerns quickly and be heard and have resolutions put in place.”

The action plan says Torus is currently looking at how a more detailed breakdown of service charges can be provided to give greater clarity and transparency for residents.

As part of developing a Leasehold Strategy, Torus will also re-establish the Leasehold Forum to facilitate engagement and feedback with leaseholders by March 2019.

A spokesman for Torus said: “Helping older tenants and leaseholders to remain independent and enjoy a better quality of life is an ongoing priority for Torus.

“We are currently working through the action plan with an aim to providing greater clarity of information for our customers.”

The action plan also says that YHG has reviewed its approach to the information given to residents about service charges and how this information is delivered, and revised arrangements have now been put in place.

As part of the review, YHG has established a working group of the chairs of residents’ associations in the retirement villages to review the written financial information, including service charges and sinking funds.

The recommendations from this group will be implemented and be reflected in the information that is sent out on service charges in February 2019.

Haydock councillor Martin Bond, who headed up the review alongside Earlestown councillor Dave Banks, told cabinet that he welcomed a “significant” number of recommendations in the report.

However, he raised concerns over the length of time it is expected to carry out a review into sinking fund charge by YHG’s.

A sinking fund covers the cost of major repairs and is payable upon the sale of the property.

YHG have acknowledged further work is needed regarding information relating to the sinking fund and has replaced the ‘guidance notes for purchasers’ to ‘leaseholder information’.

It is also undertaking a corporate review of all sinking funds and said it will report back in September 2019.

Cllr Bond said: “That’s the only element of this that concerns me to an extent is we’re looking at September 2019 for review of that.

“That is the single most important issue that we came across in terms of causing anxiety for residents.

“So, I would urge Your Housing and Torus to move quicker on that really, rather than waiting for that length of time.”

Another recommendation is for Torus and YHG to consider reviewing the continuation of service charges when a property becomes vacant and how this information is communicated to prospective buyers and their families.

Following the review, both Torus and YHG have confirmed that a review of leaseholder information is in progress to provide greater clarity and transparency in this area.

Council leader Derek Long praised the scrutiny review, saying it was a “very good example” of the council holding housing associations to account.

Cllr Long said: “Clearly, older people are a rising component of our demography in terms of St Helens, so therefore it’s crucial that services are bang on for these very key parts of our population.

“Obviously, we no longer control public housing so therefore this has gone to housing associations.

“So, this is a very good example where how we as a council are trying to hold to account housing associations which are no longer under our control.”

Cabinet approved the action plan.