The biggest shake-up of the welfare system since the post-war period is starting in April this year. This week and next week reporter Hannah Collisson looks at the impact of these changes on the town’s residents.
HUNDREDS of households will feel the pinch as changes to housing benefit coming into effect in April will penalise those who are deemed to have a spare room.
The housing benefit change colloquially known as the ‘bedroom tax’ applies to working aged tenants, aged under 61 in April 2013, in social housing, and 865 households in Hastings and St Leonards will be affected.
A total of 708 tenants are classed as being over-accommodated by one bedroom, and will see a 14 per cent reduction in their housing benefit, while 157 are over-accommodated by two or more bedrooms, and will see a 25 per cent reduction in their housing benefit payments.
This is part of the Government’s plan to cut the £23 billion annual cost of housing benefit and solve the problem of overcrowding.
Councillor Andrew Batsford said: “I and other councillors have been contacted by residents in tears already; they feel their homes and families are at risk.
“We have to stand up on their behalf and say no to this socially divisive sickening welfare reform.”
Along with fellow Labour councillors, and other groups, Cllr Batsford is organising a peaceful demonstration against the ‘bedroom tax’ to take place outside the town hall on March 16, from 11am.
Cllr Batsford added: “The demonstration is to give people a chance to show what the human cost is.”
The rules state that tenants are entitled to one bedroom for themselves and their partner, and one bedroom for any child over 16.
A child under 16 is expected to share with someone of the same gender, and children under 10 are expected to share with another child under 10 regardless of gender.
Parents who are separated are not allowed to keep a vacant bedroom for a child who visits, and foster children are not counted as permanent members of a household.
Nor are parents whose children are serving away in the armed forces allowed to keep a room vacant.
Disabled tenants who have a carer staying overnight are allowed a spare room.
The options for those who are under-occupying, are to move to a smaller property (although there is no guarantee one will be available), take in a lodger, or just absorb the cost.
Councillor Robert Cooke, group leader for the Conservatives at HBC, said that the reforms were creating parity with what already exists in the private rented sector for those who receive housing benefit, and added: “With an ever-decreasing amount of money, difficult decisions have to be made.
“I think, sadly, it is necessary.”
He added that Government discussions are ongoing, and further exceptions could be on the cards.
Hastings MP Amber Rudd said that at the heart of the housing benefit changes was the need to ease overcrowding in many homes.
She said: “I feel it is absolutely misleading to call it a bedroom tax.
“We urgently need to address the under occupancy of local social housing in order to house families who are unfairly kept on the waiting lists or over crowded in properties too small for their needs.”
She admitted that there were individual situations that would need looking at.
Hastings Borough Council has been liaising with the main social landlords, AmicusHorizon and Orbit South, and all three have written to affected households.
The council has a Discretionary Housing Payment fund which is a limited amount of money provided by central Government.
This money will be used to help in cases of exceptional hardship and is designed as a short-term measure, not a long-term solution, and tenants must apply for help from this fund.
For advice contact the Advice and Community Hub, at Renaissance House, in London Road, St Leonards, open Monday to Friday 9am to 4.30pm. Alternatively call 01424 721458.
lFor more on the forthcoming changes to the welfare system see next Friday’s Observer.