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:
"...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."
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.
Cllr Lib Peck
Leader, Lambeth Council