by Natalie Bennett
Two excellent speakers yesterday at the Camden Green Party members’ meeting, Grace Livingstone, tenant activist at Holly Lodge, and Robert Taylor of the Camden Federation of Private Tenants.
One foci of the discussion was the coming changes in housing benefit. Grace said that we were facing homelessness and insecurity on a scale not seen in our lifetimes, with the poorest and most isolated most vulnerable. A campaign of vilification that sought to brand all benefit recipients as “scroungers” was making people even more reluctant to come forward and make their case, yet more than 90% of recipients in Camden are in work, being in private rental housing with high rents. “The obvious solutions are either to put a cap on rent, or to provide more social housing.” (The facts behind a celebrated case of demonisation were highlighted by Camden member Alan Wheatley.)
In a report dated September 2010, Camden Council stated that out of 29,485 Housing Benefit claimants, 3,135 people claimed Local Housing Allowance (LHA) and the changes will affect 2,241 of these who live in private rented homes.
The housing benefit will be reduced to the 30th percentile of average local rents (from the 50th). There will be a cap on total benefits that would, Robert said, hit households south of the Euston Road particularly hard. (The limits will be 1 bed £250, 2 bed £290, 3 bed £340, 4 bed £400 = maximum for any size of property.) Also the single home rate (rather than payment for a room in a shared house) will start at age 35, not 25, as it does now. Additionally, while rental inflation is now 8-10%, housing benefit will only raise by the CPI rate, usually 2-3%.
The reductions have begun now for new claimants, and will start to effect existing claimants from January 2012 (hitting people on the anniversary of their claim). Then from October 2017 the benefit is planned to be rolled into the new “universal credit” – and will be determined centrally, rather than by council.
Another key issue in the discussion were planned changes to council housing that would make council tenancies almost as insecure and uncertain as private rentals, allowing rental terms of just two years, and allowing only people most in need to even join the waiting list.
Grace said: “This is further stigmatising council tenants. The coalition – and Labour also did it too – like to talk about tenants as ‘the underclass’. One MP likes to say that 70% of council tenants are unemployed, but in fact more than half of those are pensioners, about 35% of the total. Of the remainder, one third are unemployed, but a lot of those are disabled people and carers; only 6% are on Job Seekers’ Allowance.”
The current Localism Bill, before parliament, allows councils to only have two-year tenancies for their housing, but it will be up to councils to decide if they want to use the provision. Cambridge and Islington councils have already pledged not to, and Grace said she very much hoped Camden would do the same. “One urgent task is to let the public know what impact these changes will have.”