Monday, 15 April 2013

Southport the 'local housing allowance' and the bedroom tax

There is a crisis in social housing. In Southport there is a dramatic shortage of affordable housing. Our residents are living longer and-despite the borough’s falling population- we need more homes to satisfy the growing elderly population and people who live in single person households.  Many people under forty are choosing not to marry and in addition the divorce rate means that where a family used to occupy one house they now need two.

Southport had a particular combination of circumstances. Firstly we have very few social houses-ie council houses or Housing Association stock.  To be precise we have no Council houses because under extreme pressure from the last Labour government we had little choice other to transfer the stock to One Vision Housing Association in order to meet the ‘decent homes’ standard.  If my memory serves me well every Labour Councillor voted for the transfer.*  Secondly during the period under Thatcher, Blair and Brown council houses were sold off and not replaced. Thirdly we have never had a large supply of ‘social houses’ Put simply the old Southport County Borough didn’t build many. Indeed when I first came to the town in the late 70’s I remember looking up the figures and Southport C.B. had one of the smallest percentage of houses in Council ownership anywhere in Britain. Fourthly we have a large private rented sector-and certainly many of our poorest residents live in private rented accommodation.

In addition to the local factors the town has the same problems as most of the rest of the country -high under occupancy, overcrowding, rising private sector rents, poor quality buildings and above all a shortage of houses.

Stephen Tall analysed the problems recently as:
There are currently two million households in England on housing waiting lists, 250,000 families living in over-crowded accommodation and one million bedrooms standing empty. Attempts over many years — including cash incentives and help with moving — have failed to re-allocate the stock of social housing efficiently
There are over 400,000 social homes that are defined as under-occupied (more than one bedroom surplus), and 150,000 that are over-crowded. Added to that private renters were hit by their own ‘bedroom tax’ when Labour introduced the Local Housing Allowance in 2008, calculated on the same basis as the Coalition’s ‘bedroom tax’.

For Southport the ‘bedroom tax’ arrived in 2008 thanks to the Labour government. It covered private rented stock-which is the sector where the vast majority of houses available for people on low pay or benefit in the town are to be found. The major employers in the town retail, hospitality and care are all relatively low paid. The 2008 changes effectively capped housing benefit so that those in receipt of it could not rent more bedrooms than they needed-same as the coalitions ’bedroom tax’.

I fully understand why Labour introduced their ‘bedroom tax’ –or 'local housing allowance' as they chose to call it. The cost of Housing benefit was rocketing as rents were rising fast.

The Labour government had identified part of the problem but-like the Coalition- applied the wrong solution or to be more precise  addressed only part of the issue.

How did we get in the mess?  Chiefly because Labour sold off ‘social housing’ and failed to replace it. The figures make grim reading. Over their 13 years in government they sold off  500,000 homes. In fact after 13 years of Blair and Brown they had added less than 20 000 units .  The problem Labour and the Coalition faced was the same-a shortage of social housing. Neither government has faced up to the need to build more appropriate homes. Nor have the looked at the impact of their welfare policies many of which provide a subsidy for private sector landlords ( and one might add the tax credits which subsidies employers to pay low wages).

Politicians should not underestimate the resentment held by people on low wages. I was canvassing in East Birkdale recently and several people firmly brought this to my attention. They were on the minimum wage or just above and working split shifts at anti social hours.They lived in the private rented sector. They were wholly unsympathetic that their taxes were being used to give unemployed people facilities they could not provide for themselves and their families.Two of them spoke about their work colleagues-both Polish-in glowing terms. Why they asked did they motivate themselves to leave their homes and travel to Lancashire to do jobs that some locals didn't take up? I can argue against such sentiments but it is wrong to dismiss them.

I noticed that a former Labour Party Secretary General has noted the same issue on the Labour Uncut website  :

..............what we see are Labour politicians on our airwaves and on social media talking about how unfair it is that people on welfare are being penalised by the government.  It may very well be unfair but what is also unfair is that people not in receipt of welfare payments are being taxed to the hilt to pay for this.  It just seems that Labour don’t care about this as much if at all.  The impact of “standing up for” the most vulnerable may very well be that Labour risks further alienating some of our most vulnerable from those who feel genuinely cross that they are having to work hard so that others do not.

Mathew Oakeshott was making this case at the London Lib Dem conference yesterday. I am not against selling council housing. The stock doesn't disappear once it is sold and the discounts do represent one of the biggest redistribution of wealth by any government since Henry VIII -but unless we solve the overall shortage of homes the problem will persist.In Southport this was made worse by John Prescott in the last Labour Government who put a cap on the number of units we could approve.  Private landlords are-in some cases-profiteering because of the shortage of supply. The added advantage of a major social house building programme will be to kick start the economy and provide employment in one sector that has available unemployed labour

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