Thursday 18 November 2010

Housing Benefits Homeless Tsunami?

Shelter has written to say that out of the 433 local authorities in the UK, Hammersmith and Fulham will be the tenth worst affected by the government’s housing benefits and Local Housing Allowance (HB) cuts.

Families in, for example, a 3-bed home will be a staggering £204 a month worse off. Meanwhile, the Department of Work and Pensions’ (DWP) own analysis demonstrates that 100 per cent of those in 1,2,3,4 and 5 bed-properties who receive any form of HB will lose out in our Borough. Hundreds of households will be evicted and many will become homeless.

But none of this information was presented at Tuesday night’s Housing Select Committee when we met to consider the consequences for local residents. Instead we were given this inadequate report.

Cllr. Andrew Johnson (Con), the Chair, agreed that the HB cuts are the biggest issue ever presented to his committee but then said H&F's officers were only capable of providing an interim report - despite the Opposition asking for an urgent briefing last June. Cllr. Johnson was unconvincing when he tried to explain the extraordinary absence of the Housing Director. Instead we were provided with a single official who did his best but struggled to answer many questions. As the meeting progressed my Opposition colleagues and I realised that all this was indicative of H&F Council's lack of interest and readiness to deal with the resulting problems the HB cuts will bring.

Shelter forecasts that “134,000 UK households will either be evicted or forced to move when the cuts come in next year”. London Councils, (the body representing the capital’s 33 local authorities) has published this briefing which says "82,000 London households will be at risk of losing their homes". These are astonishing figures - the consequences of which have never been seen before in our Borough. But the price won’t just be measured by human misery: an independent Cambridge University report, commissioned by Shelter, forecasts “the government will face costs of up to £120 million a year due to the surge in homelessness.”

Tuesday night’s meeting was devoid of this independent research or any authoritative analysis. Instead, we were given lots of “anecdotal” hearsay. For example, “We have no information on the number of landlords that will lower their rents to accommodate these changes” we were told, “but anecdotally I don’t believe landlords will be averse to doing this”. "Have you surveyed local landlords?" I asked. “No” - they hadn't. "Has the Cabinet Member for Housing met with the National Landlords Association to hear their concerns?" I questioned. “No, but anecdotally, we believe sufficient numbers of them will lower their rents” came the reply.

This was a strange approach. London Councils (a body this Council belongs to) found “Over half of the landlords renting properties to housing benefit tenants in London at the time of completing the survey stated that they would either evict their tenants or not renew the tenancy agreement at the end of the term even if there was a very small shortfall in rent". Their survey also found that ,“when the shortfall in rent rises to over £20 a week, over 90 per cent of landlords renting properties to LHA recipients in London would look to evict the tenant when they fall into arrears or not renew the tenancy at the end of the period.”

Consider this brief by Shelter which says, “the vast majority of HB claimants are either pensioners, those with disabilities, people caring for a relative or hardworking people on low incomes, and only one in eight people who receive HB is unemployed”. Crisis says, “the coalition Government is misrepresenting the reality of benefit claimants” And the BBC reports Age UK's analysis that the “80,000 pensioners who rent privately face losing an average of around £12 a week in payments." This, they conclude will “leave some elderly people on such low incomes their health may be at risk." All this research conjures up a horrible backward vision for the future of our society. One that has more in common with the wretchedness of the Great Depression than our aspirations for the 21st Century.

Contrast that research with the views expressed by Coalition ministers who have described those reliant on benefits as making a “lifestyle choice.” The Prime Minister himself has sought to mislead the public by implying that vast numbers of benefit claimants are living in homes many people "couldn't even dream of." A view that appears to ignore well-researched evidence expressed by a plethora of independent experts and is apparently based on no more than ignorant class-prejudice.

H&F's Council report was virtually useless at advising us what would happen to the residents we have been charged to represent. So Councillors Rory Vaughan (Lab), Iain Coleman (Lab) and I mostly relied on questioning the solitary council official to find out about the Administration’s approach. We learnt that H&F Council: 
  • estimate 1,300 Borough residents being affected in some way but have no idea whether there will be “a small wave of homelessness applications or a homeless Tsunami” in the Borough.
  • are not alarmed that the National Housing Federation disagrees with them and forecast 1,940 local residents being affected. Indeed, it appears that the DWP also disagrees with H&F Council as on page 20 of this government report it shows there are 2,670 Hammersmith and Fulham residents affected by changes to the Local Housing Allowance.
  • made no mention in their report of the HB changes for job seekers.
  • say that 650 tenants had been placed in private rented accommodation by the Council themselves and they would look to reassess these people if approached by them.
  • admitted that there has not been any special staff training or planning for this possible “homeless Tsunami” but said out of a department of 110 staff about 70% had some form of front line client experience
  • admitted that no work has been done on those HB claimants whose rent is currently below the new cap but who are likely to be affected next year after their rent is subjected to an annual upward review.
  • admitted that they are considering how to spend the government’s transitional payment of £400k but have not ring fenced this to deal with the resulting homelessness.
  • agreed that Black and Minority Ethnic (BME) residents in receipt of HB could be adversely affected as figures demonstrated that certain groups had larger families and therefore lived in larger properties. The Council said they hadn’t carried out an Equality Impact Assessment.
Given the possibility of a “homelessness Tsunami” hitting our Borough, it was perplexing to witness the Administration's lacklustre approach to this matter. It is particularly hard to understand why this Conservative Administration is actually closing homeless support agencies. And their aggressive policy of tightening homeless acceptance criteria will have devastating consequences for the households that find themselves kicked out of the place they live.

One obvious consequence of the HB cut is that people on low incomes will be removed from areas such as Hammersmith and Fulham. Shelter says that by 2016 this policy will have made significant changes to the population of London. The Observer put this story on its front page and even Mayor Boris Johnson has accused the Coalition Government of "Kosovo-style social cleansing." But the fact is this appears to be the feature of these changes that the Conservatives actually find most appealing. After all, the right-wing economic philosophy behind this policy is the same as that proposed by the Leader of H&F Council when he urged a hike in social housing rents up to "near market levels" (a policy now agreed by the Coalition Government). The idea being that the “invisible hand of the market” will collar people on anything other than high incomes and shift them out of areas like Hammersmith and Fulham – which has the fourth highest land prices in the Country.

So, it was to Cllr. Lucy Ivimy's (Con) credit that she agreed for me to arrange briefings with Shelter, and the Small Landlords Association/National Landlords Association in her role as the Cabinet Member for Housing. The Chair of the Housing Select Committee also agreed to bring back a full report to the February Meeting and said he’d ensure that the Housing Director and housing benefits officials actually attend this time. I also asked that we have independent evidence presented by expert sources outside of H&F Council. Hopefully, that will be arranged for the next meeting as well.

My position on housing benefits has long been that it needs radical reform. But not like this. I will report more as this story unfolds.

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