Monday, 25 March 2013

Lambeth council wasting £180,000 on '100 more police' campaign

Lambeth Council's campaign to get "100 new police officers" out of the Mayor of London has always been a little strange.

First there was the petition, launched by Labour's Cabinet member Jack Hopkins (who has responsibility for policing matters). Nothing weird about that, you might think. Except that this wasn't a petition to the London Mayor. The petition states:

"We the undersigned petition the Council to call on the Mayor of London to provide an additional 100 police officers for Lambeth to make our streets safer."

So the cabinet member responsible for policing set up a petition asking Lambeth residents to petition er, him, to call on the Mayor. This was perhaps the first clue that the campaign was little more than political posturing and an attempt to create the illusion that Lambeth Council was doing something.

The metaphorical cat (burglar?) has however now been truly let out of the bag, with an expensive mailing that hit the doormats of Lambeth residents this weekend. The new regular mailing is costing in the region of £180,000 - including a glossy brochure and '100 more police' response cards to a FREEPOST address (again at Lambeth Council, not City Hall) residents are urged to make their feelings known that they want 100 more police in Lambeth. (Note, make their feelings known to Lambeth council, rather than the Mayor).

The problem is that the Mayor's consultation on policing ended three weeks ago on 6th March. The Mayor in fact published his final plan at 9.30am this morning. You can see the Lambeth section of it here with the "before and after" consultation decisions. But thanks to the expensive mailing Lambeth residents will continue to send their cards back to Lambeth council over the next few days, believing that they will be responding to the consultation which ended at the beginning of this month, and believing that they will be influencing a report which was published this morning. And of course the cost of the campaign will increase because this is all to Lambeth's own FREEPOST address.

Was this just more Lambeth Council incompetance? Possibly. But what is clear is that Lambeth Council were all too aware both when the consultation closed (the 6th March) and when the London Mayor would make a final decision. As the Lambeth Council website states clearly: "The Mayor will make a final decision on police numbers by April".

Why then does the mailing sent at great expense to Lambeth residents, have the deadline of the 30th March printed on it, when Lambeth knew full well that the consultation had already finished? This was always clearly too late to influence the Mayor's decision (which the campaign states it is trying to do).

The only reasonable conclusion is that this is Labour Lambeth Council, once again, wasting local residents money to try and score political points, with no hope, or even intention, of success.

Friday, 22 March 2013

Claim that Lambeth residents won't 'pay an extra penny' in council tax simply untrue

Letters from Lambeth Council leader Lib Peck are currently dropping through doors telling Lambeth residents that:

"...for six years in a row, we will not have asked residents to pay an extra penny to the Council in council tax."

This is simply untrue.

A Freedom of Information request (reference 171140) we received from Lambeth council this week states clearly:

"From the process of issuing the 2013-14 council tax bills I can report that of the 134,712 properties in the borough there are 10,937 instances where a resident who received 100% council tax benefit in 2012-13, will receive less than 100% council tax support in 2013-14 and consequently will have to pay something. In addition a further 7,151 residents who received some council tax benefit in 2012-13 will now not receive council tax support."

Around 18,000 local residents will have to pay more council tax to Lambeth Council by its own admission. The increase for some many be up to £290. And it is these residents who are paying for the council tax freeze for everyone else.

The Council of has taken £2.5 million pounds from central government to freeze council tax for the rest of the borough. It has new powers to protect its most vulnerable and poorest residents from cuts to the new council tax allowance. Many councils around the country have done this. Lambeth has chosen not to do so. Instead it is passing on the cuts to the poorest.

Monday, 18 March 2013

Letter to Lib Peck asking for information to be given to local people about debt cancellation

I have today written another letter to Lambeth Council leader Lib Peck asking for the assurance that the Council will inform residents that the Council has the power to write off debts, and setting out the mechanism by which this can be done.

Lambeth's main response to cuts by central Government has been to say that they are 'informing residents'. However it does not appear that residents are being given all the information that they need.

Dear Cllr Peck,

Thank you for your email in response to mine regarding evictions.

As I am sure you aware, you are about to implement increases in council tax for some of Lambeth's poorest residents. As your own website states, Lambeth council "was not minded to provide top-up funding from its own resources" when Council Tax Benefit is replaced by the Council Tax Support Scheme. Therefore some of Lambeth's poorest residents will be hit with increases of several hundred pounds a year. Many other Local Authorities have chosen to protect their most vulnerable residents from these increases as local authorities have the power to do this.

As you say in your email, Lambeth Council is providing local people with information to help them cope with these new financial pressures . Could you assure me that in the Council's information provided to local residents telling them about the help that is available to them, you will inform them that the Council has powers to write off debts? Clearly local residents need to know this, and it needs to be explicit in the Council's literature and public information, including on Lambeth Council's website.

Specifically, the council has discretion to write off the tax for vulnerable and impoverished people under clause 10 (1) 13A (1) of the Local Government Finance Act 2012. For this to happen it is necessary for the council tax benefit claimant to write a letter to the council setting out their financial circumstances, all debts, and all relevant information such as health/ disability. Clearly local residents need to know this, and it needs to be made known widely by Lambeth Council. The procedure for residents to do this also needs to be made clear to all those who will face the new council tax increases. I would be grateful for your assurance that they will be informed of this fact.

I look forward to your response.

With all good wishes,

Jonathan Bartley
Lambeth Green Party

Lambeth Council to evict tenants who fall into arrears as a result of Bedroom Tax

Leader of Lambeth Council Lib Peck has now responded to the open letter we sent, asking Lambeth Council not to evict tenants who fall foul of the new 'Bedroom Tax' which comes into force in April. (From April, the country’s poorest working age adults in social housing who are deemed to have a spare bedroom, are having their housing benefit cut. Of the 660,000 people affected, around 100,000 live in homes specially adapted for disability according to the National Housing Federation. It also estimates 230,000 people in receipt of disability living allowance will be affected).

Since the letter was sent, Brighton council have become the first council in England to commit to fighting the Bedroom Tax by not evicting tenants who foul of the tax. This is the path that we think Lambeth should also follow.

The response from Lambeth however is disappointing. Lambeth has said that it will pursue evictions of those who fall into arrears as a result of the Bedroom Tax. This is perhaps not unexpected given Labour's recent confirmation that it would not get rid of the Bedroom Tax if elected. Indeed, in her letter council leader Lib Peck reaffirms Labour's support for the principle of the Bedroom Tax:

" a council we have a responsibility to all our tenants to collect rent and there should be no difference in how we treat arrears coming from the bedroom tax to those that accrue as a result of other Government policies. To do so would send a message to residents that they do not need to work with us to tackle the problem caused by the bedroom tax and that they can continue to under-occupy with the council meeting the shortfall."

The Council, however, has already stated elsewhere that that there aren't enough properties in the borough to downsize to, and that many will fall into arrears. This is in no small part down to the fact that it has sold off so much social housing (and left a lot more to fall apart).

Instead, Lambeth's council leader recommends options such as 'get a decent job' (of course many people affected by the Bedroom Tax already have jobs) 'move to a smaller property' (when there aren't enough available) 'swop with someone else' (which passes the problem onto others) 'get someone else to pay more' (but many of these households are already on the breadline and have a disabled family member) or take in a lodger (which has other financial penalties).

We have suggested other measures which Lambeth could explore to protect local people, but it seems Lambeth will not be taking these up either. Together this reaffirms that despite its advertising campaigns, Lambeth is quite happy to implement the cuts on the most vulnerable and not doing what it can to protect them.

The full text of the letter is as follows:

Dear Mr Bartley,

Thank you for your email.

As a Labour Council we are very proud of our diverse, mixed and vibrant communities across Lambeth and so we are very concerned about the large number of benefit changes that the coalition government are introducing and the negative impact that this may have on many of our residents. We have contacted the government a number of times to make our views clear and to ask them to reconsider, but the coalition government have pushed these changes through to become law and as you’re aware many of them will come into effect from April 2013. As a local authority we are now powerless to stop these changes but we will continue to make sure this coalition government knows how these changes are affecting local people in Lambeth.

What we can also do is make sure all affected residents are aware of the changes and to work with them to support them to find the best solution to cope with these changes: the sooner people are aware of the benefit changes, the sooner they can seek advice and help.

As you state in your email, we expect about 4,000 affected households in Lambeth. The council has provided additional funding to Lambeth Living – who manage the majority of our housing stock - to engage additional staff to make contact with these families and discuss their options for making up the shortfall in Housing Benefit that they will experience because they are under-occupying their property according to the new size criteria. The options for affected households include finding sustainable employment, moving to a smaller property (assuming one is available), moving to a cheaper area, mutually exchanging their property, taking in a lodger, asking a non-dependent member of the household to pay more towards the rent or otherwise making up the shortfall themselves. To assist the process, we are funding Broadway – a voluntary organisation - to establish a pilot lodgings scheme which aims to match under-occupied households subject to the Housing Benefit cut with people needing single room accommodation. The pilot started 1st Jan 2013 and runs to the end of June.

On your specific point re. rent arrears, as a council we have a responsibility to all our tenants to collect rent and there should be no difference in how we treat arrears coming from the bedroom tax to those that accrue as a result of other Government policies. To do so would send a message to residents that they do not need to work with us to tackle the problem caused by the bedroom tax and that they can continue to under-occupy with the council meeting the shortfall. We can't afford to do this and nor is it desirable. However, we are working with our ALMO, Lambeth Living to review arrears current policy to consider whether any changes are necessary.

We also recognise that there may well be problems for some households and we have arrangements in place to support them – as detailed above. We are also taking steps to protect those who have a genuine need for the extra room via Discretionary Housing Payments (DHP) (eg: foster carers, those in adapted properties) and can consider other situations on a case by case basis. We are committed to spending every penny of the DHP we've been given by Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) to support those affected by the welfare cuts.

I hope this information is helpful.

Yours sincerely

Cllr Lib Peck
Leader, Lambeth Council