Lib Dems in Local Government have welcomed Nick Clegg’s call for a major change to the Spare Room Subsidy – also known as the “Bedroom Tax”.
This is after new government research proved that only one in 20 affected had been able to move to a smaller home and that more people were facing rent arrears. Lib Dem ministers are calling for disabled adults to be automatically exempt and for people to only lose some benefit if they are offered a suitable smaller home but choose not to move.
Dorothy Thornhill, directly elected Mayor of Watford and Deputy Leader of the Lib Dems at the Local Government Association, said: “As people who are close to our local communities, Lib Dem Councillors have had serious reservations about this policy from the start. We hoped that the upside of this policy would free up properties for those in overcrowded accommodation, but this clearly has not happened on a large enough scale. People have ended up paying the difference, further cutting into their already stretched budgets”.
“We are pleased that Nick Clegg and Danny Alexander have now listened to the concerns Lib Dem Councillors have been raising.
“We call on the Conservatives in the Government to support the Lib Dem call for urgent reform. While we recognise that this will be a manifesto commitment if it doesn’t get implemented earlier, the time to act is now”.
Good practice from Lib Dem Stockport via an updated briefing note from Cllr Sue Derbyshire, Lib Dem Council Leader is below
In Stockport with our ALMO (council housing) we had a hardship fund and have worked to mitigate the Housing Benefit change with some good results – the most recent position demonstrates how Lib Dems have tackled this, collecting 97% of the charges and keeping arrears to minimum.
- Since April 2013, social housing tenants under-occupying their home by one bedroom have been subject to a deduction of 14 per cent of their Housing Benefit, whilst those under-occupying by two bedrooms or more are subject to a 25 per cent reduction.
- 1,455 Stockport Homes’ customers were affected by the under occupancy rules in April 2013, representing a projected potential annual loss of income of £1,059,000. Currently (April 2014) 1,080 households are under-occupying their homes and the annual income affected is £792,792. The average weekly shortfall faced by SHL customers is £14.06.
- An omission within regulations led to certain customers who had been in receipt of continuous housing benefit since 1996 being exempted from the under occupancy charges. As a result, 106 SHL customers had their Housing Benefit deduction refunded back to them, a total reimbursement of £63,931. From March 2014 these customers were re-affected by the under occupancy rules.
Mitigation of impact
- Prior to the introduction of the under occupancy rules all affected customers were visited. This visit made sure that customers were aware of the financial impact it would have on them and were aware of the options that they could take. An individual action plan was drawn up with each customer to agree how they would manage the change. The visits were very helpful in preparing customers for the changes ahead. Staff have continued to be proactive in supporting customers to manage the changes, and whilst there was an increase during 2013/14 of £22,000 in arrears for those customers who were under occupying, 97 per cent of the under-occupation charges were collected in 2013/14. The Customer Finance staff, supported by other teams have been supportive of customers in difficulties but have also taken legal action when it has been required to ensure customers make payments.
- Staff have assisted tenants in making applications for Discretionary Housing Payments (DHPs) to cover most or all of the shortfall. 759 customers received DHP payments which totalled £300,000 in 2013/14.
- SHL has been successful in supporting customers who want to move to a smaller home (i.e. downsize). This has resulted in 214 applicants transferring to a smaller property during 2013/2014. Of the 1,080 customers who are affected by the under occupation charge there are 116 on the transfer register, all of whom have had a least one offer of suitable accommodation.
- In addition, Local Letting Policies have been revised to increase mobility in the housing stock and to support customers who want to downsize. Age restriction policies have been reviewed and are now only in place for age-specific accommodation, for example sheltered accommodation, again maximising access to existing stock.
- A dedicated worker was recruited to develop the approach to mutual exchanges. This has included working more closely with other housing providers in Stockport to create a larger pool of properties for customers to choose from. 134 households moved through a mutual exchange in 2013/14, of which 23 had a current under occupation deduction. In addition, a web based, automated tool has been launched to enable customers to search for properties fitting their criteria. A public event held at Stockport Town Hall to market the scheme attracted over 100 customers, and more events are planned, which was cited as good practice in the CIH publication “How to support tenants to find an exchange” (2014).
Future support provision
- A second round of personal customer engagement is underway with under occupiers. This includes contact with customers who currently have clear rent accounts, as well as those in arrears, to assess how they are managing the impact of the charges. Customers are given the opportunity to have in-depth discussion of their options, and to be supported in their preferred course of action. These contacts will be completed by July 2014.
- 74 customers were supported to make a new claim for DHP for 2014/15. These were all cases where the customer had been awarded full DHP for the entire year 2013/14, but a new claim was required if this was to continue for 2014/15. Other claimants awarded DHPs for 2013/14 will be supported to reapply where necessary, although it is envisaged that conditions may be attached to some repeat claims to reduce the numbers reliant on these payments, e.g. mandatory attendance at household budgeting courses. The majority of the original DHP payments were made to claimants with severe disabilities, where moving home was not deemed to be practical, for example due to the need for adapted accommodation. DHP funding is only envisaged to be a temporary measure, so these customers have to consider how they will manage these changes in the longer term.
- The 213 customers who chose to downsize their home have contributed to additional properties becoming void in 2013/14. A large number of these properties have been in relatively low demand stock and in particular in two and three bedroom flats. A number of intense marketing campaigns have been successful in letting these homes. Consideration has been given to whether any low demand properties should be reclassified as smaller properties. Although there is not a need to do this at present, an approach to reclassification of properties is being developed and will be discussed with the Council should a future need arise.