Liverpool Councillors – spineless and inept in the bedroom tax

Many local council’s have received and passed anti bedroom tax motions usually for No Evictions and my home city of Liverpool is no exception.  Though councillors in Liverpool must think the anti bedroom tax groups there won’t see through their farce of a motion passed recently or their huge self-interest in the motion either!

I come onto the specific Liverpool City Council motion below but firstly I explain in general terms why I don’t like or see the worth in such motions.

Firstly, as in Liverpool and in most councils, the local authority is not a landlord and so has little power to prevent an eviction which is an issue between landlord and tenant – that is the council is not a party to them and hence No Eviction motions are merely political symbolism and they serve little or no practical purpose.

Secondly, under HB regulations the relationship between landlord and tenant has to be on a commercial basis.  So if the landlord agrees not to evict then a serious question is raised as to whether the tenancy is on a commercial basis and if it is decided not as the landlord wont evict then no Housing Benefit or LHA can be paid at all.  Hence a No Eviction policy could mean no tenant gets a penny in HB with that landlord!  This is something not seen by many and I discussed this in more detail here when various councils across the country were rushing to be the first to issue a No Eviction statement.

Thirdly, the self interest that councils have in a No Eviction policy has seen little discussion and it needs to be raised as it is an important matter and I now turn to that in the case of Liverpool City Council and specifics.  The main motion does state some very purposeful issues around HSE guidance on gas fires and boilers though it is clear the council does not understand what eviction by oppression is or can mean, but then so do many housing professionals.  The substantive motive does more on to some specific issues which deserve some comments.

On Bedroom Size

The Liverpool City Council motion of 17th July 2013 said:-

“We also ask the Chief Executive of Liverpool City Council and all Registered Providers within the City to write to Government to urge them to accept that any room under 50 square feet is not a bedroom and is not considered a bedroom for bedroom tax purposes and that any room between 50 and 70 square feet is deemed half a bedroom for bedroom tax purposes in line with the statutory overcrowding criteria in s326 of the Housing Act 1983.”

This for me is a cop out by the Council.  Liverpool City Council acts as the agent of the DWP in making HB decisions and the bedroom tax is a HB decision.  Hence Liverpool can decide to interpret what a bedroom is and are free to decide that a room of less than 50 square feet cannot be a bedroom. It is a decision fully within their powers and interpretation. Liverpool Council has officers who work to the direction of the councillors so why can’t the councillors and the Mayor simply instruct and not ask the officers to make such a ruling?

It is also a conflated motion by asking the council AND landlords. The council can make a policy decision over what a bedroom is at least in relation to the bedroom tax yet for landlords that decision to reclassify is a separate issue.  More importantly IF Liverpool City Council decided that any room under 50 sq/ft could not be called a bedroom then there is no need for landlords to reclassify as it becomes a matter of fact.

I have argued strongly that councils can take this decision and it is perfectly lawful to do so.  The recent developments in Leeds City Council who have had this confirmed after seeking legal advice adds strongly to that argument.  Though in all councils one has to ask why it has taken so long to get around to this view and why this wasn’t done 12 months ago

On (im)practical matters

An addendum from Ann O’Byrne cabinet member for Housing was then passed which said:

“Our Council is committed to – Protecting – tenants and their families against the worst affects of the bedroom tax by pro-actively engaging directly with tenants , and through housing providers with advice , quality help and assistance, preventing tenants losing their homes through sensitive debt management and rent arrears procedures, identifying and processing  Discretionary Housing Payments quickly and efficiently, and adjusting allocations and letting policies to assist tenants who wish to downsize.

Protesting to government and parliament demanding the repeal of the unfair, unworkable and uneconomic bedroom tax, working with and supporting tenant organisations and other bodies who call for the repeal of the bedroom tax, demonstrating to the government the unfairness of the bedroom tax and the high price we all pay for it; and working with other councils and housing providers in arguing the case to repeal the bedroom tax.”

The WORST affects (sic) only?  I see so please define what ‘worst’ means and also why limit it to the ‘worst’ effects however defined? Poorly drafted, vague and frankly meaningless as well as limited even if ‘worst’ could be defined!

So only advice help and assistance “through housing providers” then?  (Note well the comma usage after the word ‘and’ ) There is no commitment to see tenants getting independent advice and assistance?  How ineptly and poorly drafted and not a commitment from the council at all to the tenant – just a call (from its 14 or more councillors who are also board members of HAs) to support tenants working only with landlords!!

On Ground 8 – a wishy-washy motion was passed; –

“Council notes that councillors appointed to the boards of local housing associations are governed by collective responsibility and fiduciary duties to those housing associations. Within those constraints, Council requests those councillors to argue in their boards for a similar “no evictions” principle for housing association tenants whose arrears are solely based on Bedroom Tax.”

So Ground 8 can be used for benefit cap arrears then!!  Or for arrears caused by bedroom tax and any other reason!!  Yes you begin to see the lack of worth of such a motion and statement !!!

Yet arrears based solely on bedroom tax – or solely based on the other welfare reforms such as the benefit cap are a huge problem for Liverpool and all other councils and this is when the conflict of interest and self-interest comes to play.

If a tenant is evicted just for bedroom tax or other welfare reform created arrears then the tenant household gives a full homeless duty to the council as the household will be seen to be unintentionally homeless.  I have even heard councillors in Liverpool correctly stating that each homeless decision must be individually decided yet don’t see the irony that the same blanket policy decision they know to be unlawful was precisely how they decided the bedroom tax in the first place by simply taking the (self-interested) landlords word on how many bedrooms each property had – a fettering of convenient irony anyone?

The council with the applicant homeless SOLELY through bedroom tax arrears will have to place the household in costly temporary accommodation and then find them somewhere else to live, a full duty in other words.  This is a huge additional cost to Liverpool and all other councils and so to ‘lecture’ social landlords not to evict purely on welfare reform arrears alone is also telling landlords don’t give us the cost keep it yourself!!

Liverpool City Council is, at least currently, fortunate that it does not need to use expensive and unsuitable Bed & Breakfast accommodation to house it s temporary homeless families.  Yet given that:

  • Social landlords are issuing NSPs on bedroom tax arrears only and these are starting to come through thick and fast (and congratulations Plus Dane who have issued the first ones seen)
  • Liverpool’s DHP budget is due to run out shortly and Liverpool has a high number of PRS tenants whom will no longer get a DHP and thus be evicted
  • The existing DHP recipients will not get these renewed as the budget has run out
  • The benefit cap is due to come onstream shortly and DWP estimate is 490 families in Liverpool and at £93 per week cut these cases will be evicted whether in SRS or PRS housing

Then many evictions and homeless applications will soon start to be made to the council and it will probably have to acquire and pay for expensive B&B accommodation for these homeless households.

I am consciously avoiding any comment on the horrendous plight eviction, homelessness and temporary accommodation has for those families affected.  That is because it is self-evident and doesn’t need comment and the correct action that needs to be taken by Liverpool and all other councils is an economic no-brainer.

Liverpool councillors have the powers to direct its council officers to declare as policy that (a) a room under 50 square feet in floor area is NOT a bedroom and; (b) that a room between 50 and 70 square feet is half a bedroom.  In doing so Liverpool could take about 2500 families out of the bedroom tax which would keep a further £2m or so in the local economy AND take away a huge financial risk and cost to the council should these families be evicted.

Lord Freud threatened councils with a reduction in HB subsidy if they did this.  Yet Leeds City Council have called his bluff and said you cant do this and we have taken legal advice on that issue.  Note well that Leeds have said that the council there as a corporate body not as a landlord will take DWP to court if they reduce HB subsidy.  That is incredibly significant….as is Lord Freud and the DWP’s silence on the Leeds position!

Why the hell Liverpool City Council along with the other 4 Merseyside Councils and even neighbouring Halton with whom they work closely have not each chipped in a measly £5k each and sought two or three separate counsel opinions on this I do not know.  It is and was the bloody obvious thing to do and should have been done before the bedroom tax came in.

The Leeds position also states that rents don’t have to fall and so in making this decision Liverpool City Council would not fall out with social landlords either.  In fact they would be doing them a huge favour yet this hare brained motion creates tension between council and social landlord by the council lecturing landlords on not evicting bedroom tax only arrears cases.

Those same social landlords could afford to be more practical and afford to treat arrears cases more sensitively as they would be spending less on chasing arrears and have less arrears to chase and have less of a financial risk to the bedroom tax.

Liverpool City Council did recognise the severity of the austerity impact the welfare reforms would have in the city and they subsidised the council tax replacement scheme – whereby those on benefit have to now pay rates as Council Tax Benefit was abolished by the coalition in April – to the tune of £1.7m this year.  They deserve praise for that and it means they set a rate of 8% for benefit claimants to pay whereas neighbouring councils set their rates at 20% and more.

Yet if they had spent 1% of that amount seeking a counsel opinion on whether they could unilaterally decide a room under 50 square feet cannot be a bedroom as the 1985 Housing Act states clearly, they could have saved the city about £2m per year and taken about 7000 men women and children out of the bedroom tax!

What does Liverpool’s motion say again?  – “Our Council is committed to – Protecting – tenants and their families against the worst affects of the bedroom tax“…Hmm!

 

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