Wednesday, 27 February 2013

Another local option for dealing with the 'Bedroom Tax' ?

Yesterday I wrote to Lambeth council leader Lib Peck asking for a commitment not to evict tenants who fall foul of the Government's 'Bedroom Tax'.

On the Guardian website today is a story that points to an additional course of action that Lambeth might be able to take.

It concerns Knowsley Housing Trust, who have reclassified nearly 600 family homes as smaller properties. This will exempt tenants from having their housing benefit reduced by the Bedroom Tax.  It is conceivable that a local authority could do the same with its own housing stock, particularly given that Lambeth faces similar problems regarding a lack of suitable smaller housing for tenants to downsize to.

The legal situation regarding whether a council might be able to do this is already being discussed:
While the bedroom tax statute is silent on what constitutes a bedroom, there is plenty of statute that could provide a definition, e.g  Part X Housing Act 1985 – the statutory overcrowding provisions: 
  • more than 110 sq feet (10.2 sq metres approx) = 2 people
  • 90 – 109 sq ft (8.4 – 10.2 sq m approx) = 1.5 people
  • 70 – 89 sq ft (6.5 – 8.4 sq m approx) = 1 person
  • 50 – 69 sq ft (4.6 – 6.5 sq m approx) = 0.5 people.
  • Less that 50 sq ft = not suitable as sleeping accommodation
Then there are the HMO regulations, Housing Act 2004, which sets a minimum of 6.5 sq m as a bedroom where there is a communal living room (or 10 sq m where there isn’t.) 
Some local authorities also have their own HMO licensing standards, which set minimum bedroom sizes. 
Arguably, any or all of these would be of relevance to whether what is identified in the tenancy agreement as a bedroom is lawfully so-called, and thus whether the bedroom tax should apply.

I have raised this with a councillor who had also seen the story, and asked whether this is something Lambeth could explore.  Let's see what happens...

Tuesday, 26 February 2013

Open letter to Lib Peck asking Lambeth not to pursue evictions of tenants who fall foul of the 'Bedroom Tax'

I have today sent the following letter to the Leader of Lambeth Council Lib Peck, asking for a council commitment not to pursue the eviction of tenants who fall foul of the new 'Bedroom Tax'.

26th February 2013

Dear Cllr Peck,

As you know, from 1 April 2013 new restrictions will be introduced by the Government affecting working-age households occupying social housing. Reductions will be applied to housing benefit payments where tenants are deemed to be under-occupying their homes. This has been called the ‘Bedroom Tax’.

Your own estimates suggest that 4,000 households in Lambeth will be affected. These will suffer shortfalls of hundreds of pounds a year. You also suggest that because of Lambeth’s lack of suitable smaller accommodation for tenants to downsize to, there will be a large build up of rent arrears. The result will be more debt, more people struggling with bills and the real risk of more homelessness, with all the enormous costs that brings.

It is not enough for Lambeth council to wring its hands in despair. Lambeth Council must take steps to protect those who will be adversely affected. Will you therefore commit the council not to take eviction action against tenants for rent arrears which have arisen as a result of housing benefit being reduced for ‘under-occupation’?

This would be workable, practical and within your power to do. In determining when and whether to initiate and pursue proceedings to recover a tenancy as a consequence of rent arrears, the council could:

- Calculate the sum by which the household’s housing benefit payment has been reduced by under-occupancy restrictions

- Disregard that sum in relation to action for recovery of the tenancy (eviction).

This would be a pragmatic move that would leave it open for Lambeth Council to do as it has always done for other types of rent arrears. Other forms of debt-recovery might be used for bedroom tax-related arrears should Lambeth Council choose to pursue them. But crucially, it would remove the spectre of eviction and homelessness that will hang over many of Lambeth’s most vulnerable residents as a result of the Bedroom Tax.

I look forward to your response.

Yours sincerely,

Jonathan Bartley
Lambeth Green Party

Monday, 25 February 2013

Exposing the lie of Labour's Council Tax 'freeze'

Labour-run Lambeth Council has made much of freezing council tax “for everyone” since 2008.   This despite the fact that it has simultaneously been slashing public services, hitting the poor and most vulnerable hardest. The authority claims that the freeze is all about helping such people and was a relentless theme in the recent Brixton Hill by-election. The Labour candidate’s mantra was “I’ll always put people first…by voting to FREEZE council tax for the next TWO years.”

BUT Lambeth Council’s refusal to cover a 12 per cent funding shortfall in the new arrangements for paying council tax benefit – despite its discretion to do so (and 25 per cent of other council’s making up the difference) – exposes the lie. The cut in central government funding has been long flagged and the council effectively made its decision not to protect those it claims to at Cabinet on July 9 last year.

As the council helpfully explains on its website “the council is not currently minded to provide top-up funding from its own resources.” Is this the kind of help Cllr. Ed Davie – chair of the health and adult social care scrutiny committee - had in mind when he tried to justify a second-round of taxpayer-funded “don’t blame the council” political advertising in a recent article in The Guardian?

To be clear: Labour councillors are freezing Council Tax for themselves while effectively hiking it for the poor and most vulnerable. Putting people first? Are you having a laugh?

It is plain that the council thinks there are better ways of spending its money than protecting those most in need. Like heating the Town Hall to over 27ºC for instance.

It has in fact received a 'bung' from central government to freeze council tax - a freeze grant of £2.46 million. This is almost exactly the amount which Lambeth need to cover the council tax benefit/ allowance shortfall. The money however, has not been used to protect the vulnerable, despite Labour's insistence that this is why it was freezing council tax.  

The Resolution Foundation in its report “No Clear Benefit” sets out the nationwide impact of the cut for Council Tax benefit funding. Some 3.2 million working households will be affected, with pensioners the only group exempted. The numbers are horrific: some will see an increase in what they pay of 336 per cent; in monetary terms the funding cut will see some pay up to £600 more a year in Council Tax.  The worst hit? Nationwide, according to Resolution, it is that now all too familiar acronym of BME (black minority ethnic).

Approximately 1 in 3 households in this deprived borough are in receipt of the current benefit, according to Lambeth Council. And the council’s own impact assessment makes clear that worst hit by the way it is introducing the cut will be women and ethnic minorities.

If there was one council that really did need to protect its residents from the cut to Council Tax Benefit, it was Lambeth. Instead, the council will meet on Wednesday to outline a programme of cuts which will make those seen so far, look tame.

Ted Knight, a former Labour leader of Lambeth Council in the 1980s has implored current Labour councils to form a coalition of resistance against the cuts. To do otherwise he says is “absolutely indefensible”. To say the current Labour leadership of Lambeth Council is thumbing its nose at the likes of Knight would be an understatement. This Labour council is complicit in these brutal, ideological cuts.

Friday, 22 February 2013

Why Lambeth is the Dirty Man of London councils

A group of activists descended on Lambeth Town Hall yesterday to call on the council to clean up its act and to demand some answers to its appalling record on energy efficiency and the environment. 

We adopted a half-term holiday theme to highlight the fact that you'll find warmer temperatures in the Town Hall than say a winter-break destination like Acapulco. Despite the freezing temperatures outside we soon warmed up in our balmy surroundings and were able to happily recline on our beach towels while eating choc-ices. As usual all the council staff were in their shirtsleeves with the windows wide open. The reason? On a recent visit to a council meeting we recorded a temperature of 27.4ºC (Guidelines commonly suggest temp should be maintained at between 18ºC and 21ºC).  How can such energy inefficiency be justified at a time of such severe service cuts? The council is literally burning taxpayer money.

Despite claims that it is taking the issue of energy efficiency and climate change seriously in its recent Greenhouse Gas Emissions 2012 Report, there is scant evidence. It needs to do a lot more than clad a few old pipes and tell staff to turn off PCs overnight.

The evidence below suggests Lambeth Council has a disregard, if not utter contempt, for taxpayer value for money, energy efficiency and climate change:

  • The council appears not to have a current Display Energy Certificate for the Town Hall. The one on display as of  20/2/13 was almost 5 months out of date. It is mandatory to display a current EPC. What could the council have to hide?
  • According to its old energy certificate the council’s energy use is getting worse year on year, and is a rather inefficient Category D.
  • Although the council currently spends almost £9m a year on energy it appears to have ignored most of the recommendations in its last Advisory Report (retrieve it here using postcode SW2 1RW) which told the council to stop simultaneously heating and cooling the Town Hall, and install a condensing boiler among a range of High Impact, affordable measures. The council were also told about a range of financial assistance. None of this appears to have been acted on.


Wednesday, 13 February 2013

Lambeth's dismal food waste collection statistics

We already know that Lambeth has one of the worst recycling rates in London, falling further and further behind the London average.

We also caught Lambeth trying to fiddle it's recycling stats, by classing incineration as recycling. I popped down to the town hall recently with Jenny Jones to highlight it. It also made news on the BBC.

We have now got hold of the food collection data for Local authorities across London from WRAP.

It shows that Lambeth lies a couple of places from bottom, collecting food waste from just under 11,000 kerbside properties and just under 8,000 flats. Boroughs like Croydon and Bromley collect from around 110,000 kerbside properties. Even in neighbouring Southwark they collect from 47,000. Lambeth is ahead of only the Corporation of London and Sutton.

Thursday, 7 February 2013

Alternative London budget proposed to lower fares, save fire stations and reduce pollution

Green London Assembly member Darren Johnson has published an amendment to be tabled at the London Assembly meeting on Friday 8th February, which is discussing the Mayor’s draft budget.

The amendment has three principal objectives:

- to help low income Londoners by holding down fares and supporting them to find decent homes let by accredited landlords

- to protect Londoners from damaging and unnecessary cuts to fire stations, fire engines and firefighters whilst raising council tax below the rate of inflation

- to improve Londoners’ quality of life, for example by investing in measures to make London’s streets safer, healthier and less congested

The Green amendment puts public safety and lower fares before gimmicks like council tax cuts and the New Bus for London. Households would pay an extra £10 a year due to a 2% council tax rise to save fire stations threatened by cuts, and households would save £60 a year from cheaper transport fares. This would also tackle longstanding problems ignored by the Mayor, such as central London’s serious air pollution problem.

Highlights include:

- On cost of living – freeze bus fares and hold train and tube fares down to inflation, more than offsetting a below-inflation rise in council tax

- On housing – set-up an ethical lettings agency to help tenants find decent landlords with decent homes, avoiding rip-off agents

- On the fire brigade – stop plans to close 12 fire stations, sell of 18 fire engines and lose 520 firefighters

- On the police service – get more frontline policing for our money by using more civilian staff and PCSOs and dropping the obsession with police officer numbers

- On our streets – spend 2% of TfL’s budget to make the 2% of journeys by bike safer and more pleasant with Dutch-style infrastructure

- On health – clean up central London’s polluted roads with a very low emission zone, a fund to help taxi drivers upgrade, and practical help for suffering schools

- On the environment – a revolving fund to help small and medium sized businesses make their premises more energy and water efficient

You can read the full Green amendment on the GLA web site to find out how these proposals are funded here