Bournemouth Council give no assurances not to evict for Bedroom Tax rent arrears

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.

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Poole Council give no assurances not to evict for Bedroom Tax rent arrears

Shown below is a public question submitted to Borough of Poole 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 Kevin Smith

“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 room and 25% for two spare rooms which in 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 rent debt is accrued because of these factors there will be no eviction of tenants?”

Borough of Poole Response from, Leader of the Council, Cllr Ms Atkinson

Response in respect of properties where the Council is the Landlord

The Council and it’s partner Poole Housing Partnership (PHP) are working hard to address the issues raised by the governments welfare reform programme. Planning for these changes has taken place over a long period and a package of assistance is now offered to residents effected by these changes. Everyone in a PHP property who has lost benefit because of the under occupation penalty and the benefit cap regulations has been contacted by PHP and offered assistance. Advice has been given about how tenants can move to more appropriate sized accommodation either by way of a transfer or by exchanging their home with another social housing tenant. We have also changed our transfer incentive scheme to give a greater emphasis on people effected by welfare benefit changes. In addition we offer tenants advice about how to maximise their income by either accessing the jobs market or ensuring that they are receiving all the benefit to which they are entitled.

We are committed to working with residents affected by these changes to ensure that they retain access to appropriate secure accommodation. We are not able to give an assurance that no one will be evicted because of arrears that have arisen as a result of welfare benefit reform, each case will be considered on it’s merits.  However we can confirm that tenants will be offered every possible assistance to deal with such problems and that eviction will always be the very last resort.

Response in respect of properties where the Council is not the Landlord

Again we are not able to give an assurance that no one will be evicted because of arrears that have arisen as a result of welfare benefit reform as the decision will be made by the respective private sector landlords. However the Council has a Discretionary Housing Payment fund, that is limited by Government grant, which it is using to help mitigate the impact of several welfare reforms taking place in 2013. Any claimant on housing benefit who is unable to meet the reduction in award can make a claim for additional financial assistance from this fund.

The Government grant is not enough to meet every claimant’s housing benefit shortfall and to prioritise awards from this fund payments are made in accordance with the Council’s Discretionary Housing Payment policy. The Council’s policy is designed to support the implementation of the Government’s welfare reforms whilst making sure we have a process in place to protect our most vulnerable residents, sustain tenancies where we can and prevent homelessness.

Where an application is made and it is established that the claimant cannot afford the housing benefit shortfall awards may be made to financially support claimants whilst they take action to change their circumstances so they can afford their accommodation in the longer term. Each application is considered on a case by case basis, and the length of award will vary. The policy expects claimants who make applications for the additional financial support to engage with relevant support services, such as work programmes, budgeting and debt advice agencies, health programmes etc. and, where appropriate, take steps to be able to afford their accommodation in the future.

Bournemouth Council response to open email about Bedroom Tax

BPACC recently sent an open email to Bournemouth Borough Council about the Bedroom Tax following an article in the council’s Spring edition of Home News that stated some people were ‘protected’ and we asked for clarification.

We also expressed our concerns that Discretionary Housing Payments (DHPs) were not a viable long term solution as they fail to give people with disabilities the assurance that their housing needs are secure and asked the council several questions.

Shown below are BPACC’s questions and the council’s response received this week:

1) Question: Is Bournemouth Borough Council exempting all people stipulated in the Home News article from the ‘Bedroom Tax’?
Council response: No. Unfortunately, the article gave the impression that disabled people are not affected whereas, in fact, they are not exempt from the under-occupation rules.

2) Question: Where it is determined that people are entitled to DHP, will funds be made available for all cases irrespective of whether the money allocated by central government is exhausted?
Council response: The DHP fund is being carefully managed so that funds are available for all cases where it is determined that help should be given. The Council has the option to top up the fund to a “prescribed limit” if the central government funding should become exhausted but cannot go beyond that limit.

3) Question: Will DLA income be taken into account when assessing a family’s income?
Council response: Not for assessing entitlement to Housing Benefit but would be taken into account when deciding whether to award DHP.

4) Question: Where parents or guardians of children receiving DLA no longer live together, will both households will receive DHPs?
Council response: DHP can only be awarded if someone is receiving HB. So if no parent received HB no DHP would be considered. If only one parent received HB, DHP could only be considered for the parent who received HB. However, if both parents received HB each DHP application is judged on its own merits so there might be circumstances where both parents could get a DHP.
The child will normally be taken into consideration in the household where child benefit is payable and that is the household where the DHP would be normally be considered for if a disabled child was the reason for the application.

Following these responses we have asked follow up questions, below are the council’s replies:

1) What steps are Bournemouth Borough Council planning to take to make this clear to residents?
Council response: The under-occupation rules only affect those in local authority properties and housing associations. All affected residents have been written to at least twice by Housing Benefit staff. The Council’s Housing Management Team has been proactive by contacting their tenants to discuss the options open to them. It is understood that housing associations have done the same.

2) What are the criteria for making an application for DHP and determining whether help should be given; and what is the level of the “prescribed limit”?
Council response: Please see the relevant page on the Council’s website. The prescribed limit is 2.5 times the Government contribution which for Bournemouth equates to a limit of £1,256, 630

The Bedroom Tax is a cynical attack on the poorest in our society. Questions have been submitted to both Bournemouth and Poole Councils asking for assurances that no residents will be evicted due to rent arrears accrued through the Bedroom Tax. These assurances were not given click here for Bournemouth’s response and click here for Poole’s response.

Open Email to Bournemouth Borough Council about the Bedroom Tax

The following email has today been sent to Bournemouth Borough Council:

On page 39 of the Spring 2013 issue of the Bournemouth Borough Council “Home News” it states:

“And now for something completely different! As mentioned elsewhere in this edition of HOME NEWS, April sees a radical overhaul of Housing Benefit. To clear up any concerns by disabled tenants, here’s a list of those tenants protected from the ‘bedroom tax’

Pensioners (those of state pension credit age).

People who are in receipt of high rate of the mobility or care element of disability living allowance

People who have a severely disabled child – parents or guardians who have a child that receives Disability Living Allowance.

People who are disabled and need a non-resident over-night carer”

We welcome any move by the Council to alleviate the burden of the unjust ‘bedroom tax’ which is a blatant attack on the poorest in our society. It states that the above people are ‘protected’. However it is unclear whether Bournemouth Borough Council are ‘exempting’ the above people or following government guidelines relating to Discretionary Housing Payments (DHPs).

We are extremely concerned that DHP’s are made from a budget-limited, non ring fenced discretionary fund and often limited to just a few months to provide temporary help. We feel they are not a viable long-term solution as they fail to give people with disabilities the assurance that their housing needs are secure. DHPs will also be needed as a result of other aspects of welfare reform (such as the benefit cap and the changes to council tax benefit).

In the long term, it is likely there will be insufficient resources to help all disabled people who need to remain in their current home. We feel DHPs are not suitable to mitigate the effects of the policy on disabled people. Their discretionary nature means claimants cannot appeal against apparently unreasonable or irrational allocations.

More than three-quarters (77%) of people claiming Disability Living Allowance (DLA) choose to live in the social sector as it provides the additional space and security with many properties having been significantly adapted for their needs. The Government has exempted DLA recipients from the household benefit cap, ‘in recognition of the additional financial costs that can arise from disability and that disabled people will have less scope to alter their spending patterns or reduce their housing costs.’ However, the same principle has not been applied to DLA claimants who are expected to be hit by the Bedroom Tax.

Please could you provide clarification on the following:

Is Bournemouth Borough Council exempting all people stipulated in the Home News article from the ‘Bedroom Tax’?

Where it is determined that people are entitled to DHP, will funds be made available for all cases irrespective of whether the money allocated by central government is exhausted?

Will DLA income be taken into account when assessing a family’s income?

Where parents or guardians of children receiving DLA no longer live together, will both households will receive DHPs?

Thank-you for your time in considering these issues and we look forward to receiving your response.

Regards
Mike Cracknell
BPACC Chair
Bournemouth & Poole Anti Cuts Coalition