Shown below is a public question submitted to Bournemouth Borough Council full council meeting on 18th June and the council’s response. BPACC are currently considering the council’s response and will be responding soon.
Public Question from Mike Cracknell
“The Government has introduced the Welfare Reform Bill which limits the total amount of Welfare benefits with an increase capped at 1%. This coincides with the introduction of the Social Housing Size Restriction policy equating to a reduction of 14% for one spare bedroom and 25% for two spare rooms which is monetary terms equates to circa £14/15 per vacant bedroom in Housing Benefit for tenants occupying social housing. Will the Council give an assurance that if the rent debt is accrued because of these factors there will be no eviction of tenants?”
Reply from the Leader of the Council, Cllr John Beesley
Tenants who are affected by the Social Housing Size Restriction policy (also referred to as the “Spare Room Subsidy”) will be of working age, receiving Housing Benefit and here in Bournemouth will be either local authority tenants or housing association tenants.
There are 577 Housing Benefit recipients affected in Bournemouth, of whom 328 are Local Authority tenants and 249 are in Housing Association properties.
All those who are affected and are Local Authorities tenants were written to twice by the Housing Benefits team with an explanation of how their Housing Benefit could change. The Council’s Housing Management team has been most proactive in contacting these tenants in order to discuss their options. They have been provided with information and advice on downsizing, applying for Discretionary Housing Payment, maximising income, returning to work and taking in lodgers. The Housing Management team is working closely with the Allocations team to ensure that all tenants wishing to downsize are placed on the ‘gold band’, significantly increasing their chances of winning a bid on a suitable property. tenants who wish to downsize will also be encouraged to arrange a mutual exchange of tenancies with other social housing tenants.
The Council is currently reviewing the incentives that it pays to tenants who wish to downsize to smaller properties in order to provide more assistance with the costs associated with moving, such as replacement of carpets, removals and decorations. The Council is also considering the level of practical assistance that it can provide, such as help with the connection and disconnection of white goods.
One of the Council’s 8 Housing Strategy priorities for Bournemouth is to ensure that we are making the best use of all our existing housing. The Social Housing Size Restriction policy forms part of this strategic priority by freeing up much needed family accommodation to help meet the housing needs of many who are on the Council’s waiting list. In April this year there were 3,177 households on the waiting list. 933 of these needed 2 bedroom accommodation and there were a further 645 who needed 3 bedrooms or more. We have reduced the waiting list from the 9,425 who were on it a year earlier through a much stricter allocations policy and are doing all we can to increase the number of new properties available to those most in need. It seems only fair therefore that we use our existing and future housing stock to best suit the needs of tenants, through downsizing where appropriate, in order to free up larger homes for those who need them and who are included on the revised waiting list, in the main through having a Bournemouth connection.
The Council’s policy in dealing with tenants who fail to pay their rent is available on the website. The policy is flexible enough to ensure that each case is dealt with on its own merits by specialist and experienced staff. They will become involved in cases of non-payment quickly in order to provide assistance and advice and have been successful in helping tenants who experience problems in paying their rent. However, if a satisfactory arrangement to manage the rent account cannot be agreed, the Council would take action to recover the property, nut only ever as a last resort.
In the Budget statement, the council recognised that Welfare Reform would be likely to cause hardship for some. Although there is no direct requirement by the government for us to do so, in Bournemouth we made provision in the Budget of £1.0 million for this year (2013/14) to establish a Local Welfare Assistance Fund. Bournemouth residents can apply can apply for emergency one-off payments through this fund to help with their living expenses where they are struggling financially. This fund is therefore very much targeted to those who are are most in need of support. In addition, the Council has also created a new earmarked reserve of just over £500,000 to further address the impact of the changeover to Universal Credit as the next stage of the governments Welfare Reform programme. This will provide an additional safety net for the most vulnerable local people here in Bournemouth. It should be stressed that neither of these additional funding streams are required by the government to be provided by the Council, but were nevertheless contained in our Budget Statement in February. They were introduced because we wanted to protect the most vulnerable local people and because it was simply the right thing to do.