Welfare Reform takes centre stage HHP conference

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What will happen to those hit by the ‘Bedroom Tax’ and unable to pay was one of the main issues discussed at last week’s HHP (Hebridean Housing Partnership) conference as the impact of Welfare Reform on the social housing landlord was considered.

But as yet the no decision has been made on if tenants will be evicted for non-payment of the Over Occupancy Penalty.

With the prospect of more than 300 island households faced with up to a 25% cut in housing benefit for ‘spare bedrooms’ – and 105,000 across Scotland - housing associations nationally are bracing themselves for increases in arrears.

Several local authority housing groups have taken the stance not to evict tenants whose arrears have built up due to non-payment of the penalty – however no associations have yet followed suit.

Speaking to the Gazette at the conference HHP Chief Executive Angus Lamont explained: “As it stands the board hasn’t taken a decision on tenants who fall behind on arrears because of the ‘Bedroom Tax’.”

He said that it will be considered at a meeting at the end of June but stressed: “We as an organisation really believe in the policy of supporting tenants who fall into arrears – eviction is a very last resort. It is more about how to support – rather than talking action in court.”

Asked if HHP are considering exemptions for those affected by the penalty he said: “It is one of the things we will be looking at, however it is a debt... Our tenants are very good at paying their rent – we have to deal with the most vulnerable, those with a potential for getting into rent arrears.”

Key note speaker David Orr, who was named 2013 No. 1 Power Player in a list of the most influential people in UK housing, was also questioned on the issue, this time by an HHP Housing Officer in the audience.

Asked: “If the ‘Bedroom Tax’ is a once in a generation error, how do housing partnerships get tenants to pay?” Mr Orr responded: “I think the only people who can make a decision about that are the landlords and no-one else... It is not something the regulator should be making any comments on.”

He continued: “There is a real potential for reputational damage for housing associations. However it has to be made clear that the rent is the rent and is a reasonable charge for what is being offered.”

He described the situation as a “wicked problem” because “there is no right answer to it.”

And added: “It is not the landlord penalising the tenant, it is the state penalising the claimant... Do you expect Tesco to reduce prices because benefits have gone down? No. The price is the price... We are all trying to create a rational response to an entirely irrational measure.”

But it is not just the ‘Bedroom Tax’ that is worrying social landlords across Scotland - the move to Universal Credit also has the potential to see arrears soar.

“Welfare Reform is very, very, significant now,” said the HHP Chief Executive. Mr Lamont continued: “The role out of Universal Credit - we don’t know when that will be put in place yet - but it will be a significant challenge.”

Mr Orr also expressed concern for Welfare Reform as a whole, and challenged the delegates present to be the ones who come up with solutions to the problems that will be faced in the years ahead.

He said: “Welfare Reforms will create an environment where there is less jobs and more people on benefits... Most people in Westminster don’t know the impact their policy will have in Stornoway, they don’t even know what they voted for some of the time.

“We know what is needed in the Western Isles so we need to be the people who do that thinking. Are we prepared to think differently and be bold? The question now is what are the transformational things we can do?”