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Scott Dawes

By Scott Dawes

Local Welfare Assistance Funding: Now you see it, now you don’t

Last week, the Government opened its new consultation on the funding for Local Welfare Assistance Schemes (LWAS). Admittedly, that doesn’t sound very exciting.

But don’t be fooled – because local welfare schemes are at risk, so the outcome of this consultation could become incredibly important to people in need.

In another life, LWAS was the Social Fund. Both have provided one-off assistance to people who fall on hard times. So when your fridge breaks, and you can barely keep up with the rent – let alone pay for a new fridge – you don’t have to choose between putting your family home at risk or feeding your children with food that might have gone off.

Crucially, these schemes provide welfare support nationwide, but can be used flexibly to meet the needs of people living locally. There isn’t anything else like it.

Without it people who suffer a setback could simply spiral into debt and homelessness again.

We know what happens when people can’t get help for basic goods – in our Sustain research into private renting we spoke to one mother whose children relied on bucket baths to wash, and another who couldn’t even keep milk cold.

We also know that the Social Fund has helped people living in the private rented sector to keep paying their rent when things have taken a turn for the worse.

So these schemes are important, but why is the funding being cut?

Well, it used to be funded by the Department for Work and Pensions, but in April 2013 they shifted responsibility to the Department for Communities and Local Government, who then left it to councils to deliver locally.

Importantly, the money still came from DWP; at least until they announced earlier this year that they weren’t going to fund the schemes beyond 2016.

This left DCLG high and dry and meant that councils – who have had to set up these schemes – have been given extra responsibility to carry on running them, but without the funding to match.

In the meantime, the Government were Judicially Reviewed by Child Poverty Action Group. Clearly nervous, the Government offered to review its decision through a consultation to settle the case, which CPAG accepted.

So there’s a proper consultation happening, right? Wrong.

The consultation “offers” three specific choices; no funding; no funding but suggestions on how much councils should spend; and no funding with ring fenced spending from elsewhere in councils’ budgets.

Let’s be clear, the funding has been cut in all of those options.

For 2013-14 and 2014-15 funding for LWAS was given to councils on top of their budgets but in each of the consultation options councils will be expected find the money from within their existing budgets.

Oh, and by the way their funding formula hasn’t been altered to take this into account, while their overall budgets for next year have shrunk by 13%.

There’s also an open ended fourth option, but if you want to suggest continued funding, you’re expected to cost it by proposing suggestions that wield the axe elsewhere.

So what we have is a consultation on whether to continue funding the schemes, where none of the three choices are continued funding.

There are three simple points to be made here.

The first is that this is a cut. Under current proposals, funding will be stopped. Councils’ funding formula remains unchanged; so even if councils are forced to ring fence money for the schemes, they will have to find savings elsewhere, and from even smaller budgets.

The second is that this cut needs to be challenged. These schemes are incredibly important and need to be continued; they help prevent homelessness and aid some of the most vulnerable people to access the basic goods we all take for granted.

So please respond to the consultation through our website and tell the government that they need to keep this funding in place.

The third is a wider point; when it comes to people’s homes, is this the way people expect important decisions to be made?

It is the funding equivalent of a cheap pavement shuffle cup trick; we knew where the funding was; we all followed it from place to place; we were teased with glimpses of future funding along the way; but, when we look inside the cup, it’s too late, the Government’s already made the switch.

Sadly, it’s a game where only the most vulnerable stand to lose.

Martha Mackenzie
I’m the Stakeholder Relations Assistant at Shelter, I joined the Public Affairs team in July 2012. I have been working on a wide range of projects, most notably engaging with local authorities through our rogue landlords campaign. In my spare time I’m studying for a MA in legal and political theory. When not chained to a desk I can usually be found running or cycling around London.

View all posts by Martha Mackenzie

By Martha Mackenzie

Guest blog – Andrew Smith MP and Nicola Blackwood MP

On Friday 28th November MPs will debate Sarah Teather’s Bill to end retaliatory eviction. Here, two MPs who supported this Bill from the beginning explain what it means to them – and why they were willing to cross party divides to bring it to life.

Andrew Smith, Labour MP for Oxford East and Nicola Blackwood, Conservative MP for Oxford West and Abingdon.

In July, we both pledged our support for Sarah Teather’s Tenancies (Reform) Bill. This Bill aims to protect private renters from retaliatory eviction. It will do this by preventing landlords from issuing a no-fault Section 21 eviction notice after they have been ordered to make improvements to their property by a local authority.

Oxford has one of the highest levels of private renting in the country. There are over 18,000 households renting across Oxford East and Oxford West & Abingdon. Private rented homes make up 21% of all homes in the two constituencies- well above the South East regional average of 16%.

For us, this Private Members Bill provided an opportunity to work outside the party political lines in the Commons- and work together in the interest of people right across our two constituencies.

Too many Oxford residents are forced to choose between keeping their home and living in decent conditions. Shelter found that 1 in 7 adults in the South East avoided asking their landlord to repair a problem or improve conditions in their home in the last year because they were scared of eviction. We put our name to this Bill because it is a welcome step forward in tenants’ rights and security.

But it is also very sensible. Its proposals are is based on legislation from countries that have a similar private rented sector to the UK- such as Australia and the United States. It is also consistent with existing English law. Landlords who have not protected their tenants’ deposit or have not licensed their property when they are required to do so are already prevented from serving a Section 21 notice. These reforms are simply applying the same principle to poor conditions.

This Bill is also committed to protecting good landlords from spurious or vexatious complaints. It will only impact good landlords positively. It will encourage responsible tenants to report repair work to their landlord in a timely fashion. Good landlords will respond swiftly to these reports- and will be better able to protect their properties from long term disrepair.

With such common sense measures, it is not surprising that this Bill has picked up cross-party support in the commons. Over 1.3 million families now rent privately, it is time for Parliament to work together to give these families the security they deserve.

Rt. Hon. Andrew Smith, Member of Parliament for Oxford East

Nicola Blackwood, Member of Parliament for Oxford West & Abingdon

John Bibby
John is a Policy Officer at Shelter.

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By John Bibby

2013/14: the worst year for social rented house building since WW2

A number of notable things happen around the end of October: Diwali, Halloween, the clocks go back and the government publishes its annual update on affordable housing supply.

The first couple of those may provide a good excuse for a party, but this year’s affordable housing statistical release is nothing to celebrate. It is, without overstatement, a disaster.

There are two main stories that the statistics tell.

The first is that the overall level of affordable completions has fallen for the third year in a row, down by over a third since 2010. At a time when we need output of all types of housing to roughly double, this is itself very bad news.

Probably even more alarming, however, is what’s revealed when we look at the detail of the types of ‘affordable homes’ that were built.

This is because not all ‘affordable homes’ are created equal. Under the broad umbrella comes a wide variety of different intermediate and social homes, including:

  • Shared ownership homes (part-rent, part-buy homes)
  • Intermediate rent homes (short-term homes charged at up to 80% of market rents)
  • ‘Affordable Rent’ homes (long-term homes charged at up to 80% of market rents)
  • Social rented homes (long-term homes charged at social rents – typically about 50% of market rents)

While the number of ‘affordable homes’ built every year has fallen by a third since the most recent peak in 2010, the number of social rented homes has fallen by over two thirds – down from over 35,000 to just 10,000.

This makes 2013/14 the single worst year for new social rented house building since the end of the Second World War.

In 1946, during demobilisation in the immediate wake of the war, we built twice as many social homes as last year.

The level of output is so low that through Right to Buy sales alone 5,000 more units were lost from the social rented stock last year than were added through new building.

Driving this shift in the type of affordable home that is being built is the growth of Affordable Rent. Only created as a type of housing in 2011, Affordable Rent is now the default form of new government-supported rented home. That default status is now feeding through in terms of units being built. Last year Affordable Rent homes accounted for 43% (15,840) of total affordable completions.

By being charged at up to 80% of the market, Affordable Rent homes are typically substantially more expensive than social rented homes. In London, this has meant monthly rents on new Affordable Rent family homes purportedly as high as £2,800 a month.

Shelter has argued strongly for an expansion in the number of intermediate homes that are being built – homes to rent or buy that cost less than private sector rents, but above social rents – for people on low to middle incomes. This expansion could include growth in the number of homes that are charged at intermediate rents, like Affordable Rent. But it must be in addition to, not in place of, new social rented homes.

Failing to build the social homes will not only deprive the millions of people on council waiting lists of a truly affordable place to call home: it threatens to undermine the new Affordable Rent programme itself. If social rented house building continues at historically low 2013/14 levels, families on low incomes on the waiting list will be placed in Affordable Rent homes that they will likely never be able to afford. Housing benefit will pick up the difference and the welfare bill will grow. Welfare dependency will increase.

Although successive governments have failed to substantially increase levels of social rented house building, this isn’t a problem without a solution. In Building the homes we need, the report we published earlier in the year with KPMG, we set out the policy changes needed to increase house building of all types, including social rented homes. We need to make sure that politicians on all sides commit to those policies so that next October we have more cause for optimism.

Martha Mackenzie
I’m the Stakeholder Relations Assistant at Shelter, I joined the Public Affairs team in July 2012. I have been working on a wide range of projects, most notably engaging with local authorities through our rogue landlords campaign. In my spare time I’m studying for a MA in legal and political theory. When not chained to a desk I can usually be found running or cycling around London.

View all posts by Martha Mackenzie

By Martha Mackenzie

Guest blog – the Association of Tenancy Relations Officers

Guest blog: Dave Hickling, Chair of the Association of Tenancies Relations Officers.

Assured Shorthold Tenancies (ASTs) were introduced in order to breathe life into the private rented housing market. These tenancies with no fixed period were designed to encourage short term letting at a time when the risks of letting and the difficulties of recovering possession were discouraging would-be landlords.

No one can deny that the sector is now pretty healthy and is continuing to go from strength to strength, often at the expense of owner occupation and more secure, public sector letting.

Regardless of whether it might be time to turn down some of the fuel to the private rented market’s expansion, one of the negative consequences of removing long term security of tenure for private tenants has been its impact on tenants’ willingness to report repairs.

Housing advisers and local authority officers dealing with private rented homes see examples of retaliatory (or revenge) evictions on a regular basis. These evictions are not only unfair and devastating to those affected, they also present a significant impediment to local authorities’ attempts to improve physical standards. The fear of eviction deters tenants from complaining.

Any responsible housing adviser is duty bound to make private tenants aware that a possible consequence of raising a complaint is that the landlord will issue a section 21 notice. Many private tenants are well aware that they can very easily be evicted – more easily than in most European countries and American states.

In a recent case I was involved in, after a telephone discussion with another council officer about the merits or reporting a repair to his local authority, a private tenant concluded that: our rights are very limited, and our landlord can basically do as he pleases –we can be evicted if we complain that our landlord isn’t carrying out repairs he should be. We never heard from the tenant again or received details of his complaint.

There is a ‘rationale’ behind retaliatory eviction for the irresponsible landlord, especially when alternative tenants are easy to come by. Tenants differ hugely both in the strength and resolve required to make a complaint, and in terms of their alternative housing options.

The legality of retaliatory eviction therefore encourages unscrupulous landlords to seek out the most vulnerable. When evicting a ‘troublesome’ tenant, these landlords may be confident of finding a more ‘compliant’ tenant, who is far less likely to raise issues about standards of management.

Also, where a hard-pressed Local Authority is dealing with a complaint it is less likely that any action will be followed through once the complainant leaves and the landlord’s future intentions for the property are unclear.

Sarah Teather’s Tenancies (Reform) Bill will make tenants feel more protected, and much more confident in reporting problems to us.

It will also encourage more responsible behaviour from landlords. They will know that their powers to evict will be severely curtailed if they don’t keep their properties in good repair- or they don’t make the necessary safety checks. If enacted, we are hopeful that this Bill will make less diligent landlords more careful about doing repairs and safety checks in the first place.

Case Study 1

In March 2014, Wendy complains to her Council’s Private Housing Team about various disrepair problems in her private tenancy. A Council Officer visits and finds amongst other things, damp and mould, leaking pipes and bath, dangerous wiring, no gas safety certificate, faulty fire detectors external doors in disrepair and the shower not working properly. The Officer writes to the landlord and 2 days later the landlord rings Wendy and angrily tells her she has to go, later following this up with a section 21 Notice. There were no issues with the rent account or other allegations of wrong doing by the tenant.

Case Study 2

In July 2014 Haley complains to her Council’s Private Housing Team because she has serious concern for her family about damp, mould and cold in her private rented tenancy. A Council Officer visits and contacts the landlord, raising concerns about serious damp and mould in the living and bedrooms, lack of insulation, leaking roof and gutters and a lack of mechanical fans in the bathroom and kitchen. The landlord is unresponsive and so over the next month, the Council Officer repeatedly tries to contact the landlord and writes again on 13 August. On 18 August, the tenant receives a section 21 notice with no explanation and having received no contact regarding any problems with the tenancy.

Scott Dawes

By Scott Dawes

In from the cold; bringing housing benefit advice back in scope

At Shelter we know better than anyone the value of expert housing advice, which frequently makes the difference between keeping a home and homelessness. Legal aid has long been a key source of funding for expert housing advice – including many of the services Shelter provides. But this funding was decimated by the now infamous Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 (LASPO). Shelter campaigned tooth and nail against LASPO. Sadly, its impacts have been nothing short of huge; ten Shelter advice services have closed since its introduction and legal help for housing has been removed from nearly 40,000 people.[1]

Now the Justice Select Committee is following up its critical 2011 report on LASPO with a series of evidence sessions for an inquiry. Yesterday’s was on housing – so what happened?

Someone who is only too familiar with the impacts of LASPO is our Principal Solicitor and Legal Aid Lawyer of the Year, John Gallagher. Having worked tirelessly for Shelter for twenty-seven years, John was best placed to give evidence on behalf of Shelter in Parliament yesterday.

John stressed that advice on housing benefit problems is no longer in scope for legal aid – which means people cannot get legal advice on these issues. The Government justified this because the issues were of “relatively minor importance”, but evidence given to the committee today by John and others showed how often that just isn’t true.

“Relatively minor” errors in a decision about someone’s housing benefit can contribute significantly to financial hardship, rent arrears, possession claims and eventual homelessness – something flagged to the Committee back in 2011.[2] As John went on to explain, benefits legislation is also vastly complicated – if a tiny piece of information is not gathered or processed correctly it can lead to the wrong decision being made. The average person – let alone a vulnerable one – can struggle to even identify such problems, let alone convince officials to reconsider their decisions.

Taking benefits advice out of scope probably doesn’t even save money. Evidence to the Committee in 2011 showed that every £1 spent on housing advice saves on average £2.34 of public money.[3] Advice under the Legal Help scheme costs the taxpayer as little at £150 – going to court costs £1,000s. For example, possession proceedings in court can often uncover errors in processing claims that can lead to back payments of benefits that reduce rent arrears and prevent homelessness. But if a client had got this advice before the possession order – let alone the rent arrears – it would have saved the court’s time, and saved the landlord and tax-payer money.

The Government also justified the reduced scope for legal aid on the grounds that the third sector would pick up the slack. However, the Committee heard the reality yesterday from each of the three respected lawyers; a cap on how many can be helped means people in need get turned away. Advice providers like Shelter have had to close services, reducing the amount of help on offer. And barristers securing adjournments from the court are finding that there is such a shortage of advice that those with unresolved benefit claims are unable to resolve their benefit problems in time for the next hearing, causing more delay and costing the courts more money.

The reality of LASPO has been less preventative help, less funding for organisations advising vulnerable people, and less access to justice for those in genuine need. The Government should recognise that the restrictions aren’t saving money, and that vulnerable people are being denied access to justice; it is time to reinstate housing benefit advice under legal aid as soon as possible.

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