Cllr Stuart Bodsworth: Stockport’s Approach to Housing Benefit Changes

The Liberal Democrats in Stockport have brought in a scheme to protect our tenants from being caught in a housing debt trap that they have no control over.

Whether you call it the Under-occupancy charge, Bedroom Tax, Spare Room subsidy, Housing Benefit size criteria or perhaps even a slightly more exotic and less printable local nickname, the changes to housing benefit brought about by the Welfare Reform Act 2012 are something that we, in Local Government, have to deal with.

Most people who think about this subject for more than a couple of seconds realise that it’s not a simple black or white issue, it’s made up of shades of grey. Many families struggle-by in cramped accommodation, which research shows will impact on the life prospects of the children and on the long term physical and mental health of everyone in the family. Even the most vehement opponents of the under-occupancy policy must recognise this pressing housing need! Anyone who closes their eyes to the desperate needs of overcrowded families really should examine their conscience a little more closely. But given the fact that not enough suitable smaller accommodation exists, can forcing people out of their homes by sending them into a debt spiral beyond their control really be the best way to square this circle?

In Stockport the Lib Dem administration recognises the pressing need to help overcrowded families but we also want to protect people from unmanageable debt. So we set out to civilise the Government policy. It has not been easy in a time of austerity, but working with our ALMO, we have carved out a hardship fund and put in place a non-eviction policy to protect people from arrears due to under-occupancy.   Our ALMO, Stockport Homes, like all other good social housing providers, has been tacking the changes to welfare reform head-on, engaging with our tenants and trying to find the best way for each household to manage the changes. Many local residents have opted to pay to retain their spare rooms and many have either chosen or feel that they have been forced to downsize to smaller accommodation. Some people have already moved, but like everywhere else in the country, Stockport does not have enough smaller accommodation for everyone who wants to move.

Our under-occupancy policy means that as soon as a Stockport Homes resident says they want to downsize, any arrears that are accrued due to their under-occupancy will be isolated. Once they move to smaller accommodation those arrears will be paid off by the hardship fund not by the resident.  Those arrears are not the fault of the resident, they didn’t cause them, they didn’t ask for them and they shouldn’t have to suffer the consequences of someone else’s actions. That’s a basic principle of natural justice, isn’t it?

This policy does not offer an open-ended free ride. People have to be willing and ready to downsize. The protection will be withdrawn if people refuse two reasonable offers of rehousing into smaller accommodation and it does not cover arrears that come about through other reasons. It simply builds a protective barrier between the ‘rock’ of the changes to housing benefit and the ‘hard place’ of housing availability.

We want people in cramped housing to feel the benefit of freeing up the larger accommodation without punishing people who are willing to downsize but are not able to. If anyone would like more details of the Stockport approach to under-occupancy please get in touch.

Stuart Bodsworth is a Councillor for Cheadle Hulme South and Executive Member for Communities and Sustainability at Stockport MBC.

The full policy document setting out Stockport’s approach to housing benefit changes and under-occupancy is available here.

rosemary Smith says

Yes, I see how that could work. That's a good policy.
One trouble here is that the Council has few one-bedroom properties, (and almost no one-bedroom bungalows suitable for wheelchaIr use). The private rented sector is profiting by this, I think.

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