What I want to see in the parties’ manifestos

The political parties are yet to publish their manifestos for the June general election. I have three simple requests to all parties for policies to be included in those manifestos:

  1. Make a commitment to building council houses, in massive numbers, as an investment for current and future generations. Abolish the Right to Buy so that these homes remain in public ownership in order that they continue, in perpetuity, to meet housing need, and not investment opportunities.
  2. Make an unequivocal commitment to end rough sleeping by the end of the 2017-2022 parliament. In a country as wealthy as the United Kingdom, it is an outrage that people are living on the streets, and their presence should shame those in a position to end rough sleeping.
  3. Put an end to benefit cuts. More than half of all voters think that benefit cuts have gone too far, according to an Ipsos Mori poll published on Thursday. Denying 18 to 21 year olds the right to claim benefit support to help towards their rents will drive young people into homelessness, into crime, and into sex work. What politician wants that as part of their legacy?

Private rented housing is “out of reach” for under 35s, says the Chartered Institute of Housing

The Chartered Institute of Housing (CIH) recently carried out research into the gap between rents in the private rented sector and what Local Housing Allowance (LHA) will pay.

LHA is based on the 30th centile of the range rents charged in the private rented sector. Except it isn’t. That was how it was supposed to be (having previously been reduced from there 50th centile). In fact, the level of payment has been frozen for three years and will be frozen until 2019/20. LHA no longer reflects in any way the reality of rents in a locality.

In Brighton and Hove the rates are £82.66 for a room in a shared house, £153.02 for a one bed flat, £192.48 for a two bed property. The average one bed flat in Brighton and Hove is now £971 per month compared to LHA of £612.08 for the same period.

In Eastbourne the rates are £67.00, £116.53 and £151.50, and in Hastings £69.77, £92.06 and £120.29. (There are higher rates for 3 and 4 properties).

It is worse for you if you are under 35 where you are restricted to claiming LHA for just a room in a shared house.

And if you think it is bad for under 35s, it is EVEN worse for those under 21 for whom the rate is zero (unless you are ‘lucky’ enough to qualify for one of several exemptions – merely being a rough sleeper is not enough).

So what has the CIH found? It has found that the gap between LHA and rents has widened to the point where private rented housing is “out of reach” for under 35s.

A couple of weeks ago I wrote how the senior civil servant responsible for housing policy at the Department for Work and Pensions, Darrell Smith, said that the government is now going to use LHA rates to set new, lower rents for specialist supported housing. Why? Because it is such a good barometer for the market? No. He said: “The one advantage of (LHA rates) is that they are already there, so it doesn’t cost the government anything to set it up. I know”, he continued, “that isn’t a great answer but that’s all I have got”.

11,000 18 to 21 year olds lose the right to claim housing benefit

Since Monday, those under 21 have lost the automatic right to claim housing benefit when making new claims.  It is estimated that 1,000 will be affected this year and up to 11,000 by 2020/21.

The government expects to save £105m with the cut through the life of this parliament, with set-up costs of £5m and running costs estimated at between £0.5m and £1m per year.

I have previously referred to research by Heriott Watt University that calculated that once exceptions and costs incurred on other public services were taken into account, the policy could save just £3.3 million a year.  If just 140 young people end up on the streets, the additional cost to other services (ambulance service, NHS, housing departments, police, etc.) then this measure will actually be a drain on public finances!

In Wednesday’s Argus (5th April 2017), I was quoted as saying: “Desperate times for young people will see them return to unsafe family situations, turn to crime and prostitution, and end up sleeping rough.

“For most 18 to 21-year-olds life is a big adventure but for those on the streets it can turn into the worst of all nightmares. They have hopes and aspirations but if you are on the streets it is a day to day struggle for survival.”

This policy makes no sense in economic on humanitarian grounds.

7,585 families have their weekly housing benefit cut to just 50p per week

Housing Benefit was introduced many years ago to help people who were struggling to pay their rents.  More now than ever before is it needed, as house prices spiral out of control.  More than 90% of new claims for housing benefit in recent years have been made by people in low paid employment.

But rather than tackle the crisis of supply and affordability, a cap has been imposed on how much benefit can be claimed, and the first thing to go is the financial support towards rents.

A Panorama survey has found that thousands of families hit by the benefit cap have been left with just 50p a week towards their rent, and that 7,585 families had had their weekly housing benefit cut to this level.

The cap has been reduced to £23,000 per annum for a household in London and £20,000 in the rest of the country. For a single person it is much less, £15,410 a year in London, £13,400 elsewhere.  The average annual rent for a one bed flat in Brighton is £11,652.

The amount of money above the limit is taken from housing benefit or Universal Credit.

I always try to make a comment at the end of a post like this, but I think that this situation speaks for itself, and the consequences are obvious if someone simply gets just 50p per week towards their rent.

Is this the most depressing, mind-boggling, ridiculous justification ever from government?

The government announced in late 2015 that the rents that specialist supported housing services could charge and be paid for through housing benefit / Universal Credit would, from April 2019, be capped at Local Housing Allowance (LHA) rates. This move has been widely opposed because it is likely that many services would become financially unviable.

The government is currently consulting on how services can be protected and is considering a ring fenced pot to make up any shortfall. Yesterday I was at the consultation event in London looking at this very issue. I can’t say that the mood was particularly upbeat!

The problem with using LHA is that it has not kept up with the reality of local housing markets and, what is more, George Osborne froze the rate that LHA will be paid for the foreseeable future.

A small illustration: in Brighton and Hove the average one bedroom flat is currently £971 per month. LHA in the city is £612 per month.

There is an absurdity to link the payments for supported and sheltered housing tenants to LHA rates. LHA is meant to cover housing costs.  But it costs roughly the same to provide these services where ever you are in the country. As it happens, Brighton and Hove has a higher than average LHA rate, far higher than an area in the north of England yet it costs the same, for example, to maintain a lift in the north of England as it does in the south.

The LHA is a lousy guide to actual costs.

LHA was originally introduced to set the amount of housing benefit that would be paid to claimants who rented in the private rented sector. The figure was supposed to equate to the 30th centile of rents for properties in a locality.

But why is the government determined to base rents for specialist supported housing scheme on the LHA? This week we got an insight into its thinking, and I have to say it is most mind-boggling, ridiculous justifications I think I have ever heard. That view appears to be shared by the person who gave the justification.

At the National Housing Federation’s finance conference which took place in Liverpool last week, the manager for housing policy at the Department for Work and Pensions, Darrell Smith, said in response to a question as to why LHA rates are being used for setting benefit levels for supported housing, he said: “The one advantage of (LHA rates) is that they are already there, so it doesn’t cost government anything to set it up. I know that isn’t a great answer, but that’s all I have got.”

If that is the way that government is developing its strategy for those very services that support the most vulnerable members of our society, what hope is there?

Housing in Hastings: 18 to 21 year olds

(This is the fifth and final article on Housing in Hastings that I have published this week, based on a report prepared by my colleague, Sue Hennell.)

From 1st April 2017 for all new claimants aged between 18 and 21 years will not be entitled to housing costs in Hastings under Universal Credit unless they fulfil the criteria for one of the exemptions.  The exemptions will include:

  • someone responsible for a child or a qualifying young person,
  • a person who is not able to live with their parents because either they have no parents or neither parent occupies accommodation within Great Britain,
  • it is inappropriate for the person to live with their parents (possibilities have been set out for this by the Secretary of State),
  • a person affected by domestic violence, a person who is working (there are clarifications for this) and
  • other exemptions.

People who are in receipt of the Local Housing Allowance when they apply for Universal Credit will be protected against this change.

I believe that if there is one measure that will lead to an increase in rough sleeping amongst young people, it is denying them the automatic right to claim support for their housing costs.

A spokesperson from the Department for Work and Pensions said: “We want to make sure that 18- to 21-year-olds do not slip straight into a life on benefits, which is why we are helping young people get the training, skills and experience they need to move into a job and build a career.”

As I have written before, desperate times for young people will see them return to unsafe family situations, turn to crime and prostitution, and end up sleeping rough.

What about the finances – we always hear we have to tackle the deficit. 2015 research from Heriot Watt University calculated that once exceptions and costs incurred on other public services were taken into account, the policy could save just £3.3 million a year.

If just 140 young people end up on the streets, the additional cost to other services (ambulance service, NHS, housing departments, police, etc.) then this measure will actually be a drain on public finances!

It makes no sense in economic terms. It makes no sense in human terms. It is the wrong policy and goes totally against recent positive moves by government, now least through the Homelessness Bill, to tackle homelessness.

If you are facing eviction, get advice as early as possible from one of BHT’s Advice Centres in Hastings, Eastbourne and Brighton, the CAB or another advice centre.

Here are contact details for the BHT Advice Centres:

Brighton

Eastbourne

Hastings

Housing and Hastings: The benefit cap

(This is the third in five posts regarding housing in Hastings based on a briefing paper prepared by my colleague Sue Hennell. On Monday I wrote about Universal credit and how the six week wait for the first payment was causing problems for people trying to get accommodation in the private rented sector.  Yesterday I wrote about difficulties in accessing housing in the private rented sector.)

BHT’s Hastings Advice Centre has seen clients where possession is being sought by landlords due to rent arrears, but the underlying cause has been the benefit cap.

The benefit cap was reduced in autumn 2016 to £20,000 for couples with or without children and lone parents, and £13,400 for single people. Any reduction to benefits over this amount is taken from their local housing allowance or housing costs via Universal Credit.

The only ways to increase a client’s income is for them to be in one of the groups that are exempt from the benefit cap or for them to be in work over 16 hours. Sometimes this is not possible and this means that any housing is not affordable for this client.

If the landlord was a social landlord and they brought possession proceedings in the county court, the court would have no option but to grant possession if the client had no means to cover the rent plus an amount off the arrears each week.

Having said all of the above, Hastings Housing Access Project still managed to assist eleven single clients to access accommodation within the private rented sector from the 1st of September 2016 to the 31st January 2017.

Since the 1st of April 2016 BHT Hastings Advice has seen 230 clients in private rented accommodation where they have been served with notice to leave their property.

I repeat the question I often ask, where are people going to live if there is not enough social housing, if the private rented sector is inaccessible, and now if those in housing can no longer afford to live there.

If you are facing eviction, get advice as early as possible from one of BHT’s Advice Centres in Hastings, Eastbourne and Brighton, the CAB or another advice centre.

Here are contact details for the BHT Advice Centres:

Brighton

Eastbourne

Hastings