SWINDON Council’s housing boss aims to set up a backup fund, using the money ring-fenced to improve homes, for a lifeline for tenants who will lose housing benefit under the so-called “bedroom tax”.
The Government welfare change, due to come into effect in April 2013, allows one bedroom for each person or couple in a household, with rules on rooms for children and non-resident carers.
Those with one “spare” bedroom will lose 14 per cent of their housing benefit – about £12 a week – and those with two or more will lose 25 per cent, which is, on average, £22 a week.
The move, which affects up to 1,100 council tenants in Swindon, aims to free space for the most needy and cut welfare spending.
But there are not enough one and two-bedroom council homes in Swindon for people to move into, even if they want to downsize, so some will have to stay put and take the lower benefit.
To ease the transition, the Government has pledged to give Swindon Council a larger discretionary housing payment, which is available to anyone on housing or council tax benefits, who struggles to pay rent.
However, there are concerns this sum will not be sufficient.
Coun Russell Holland, the cabinet member for housing, plans to write to Housing Minister Mark Prisk, asking if he can set up a backup welfare fund from the housing revenue account, which comes from rents and service charges and is ring-fenced for home improvements.
The fund would be about £300,000 to £500,000 and would only be available to the 400 tenants who are disabled, are a carer or in other exceptional circumstances.
Coun Holland said: “I accept there have got to be reforms to the welfare budgets, but we know there could be as many as 400 people in Swindon who are going to be affected by these changes, who may have disabilities or there may be other exceptional circumstances.
“What the Government is saying is these people are going to be covered through discretionary housing payments, but we don’t know yet how much we’re going to get or how long that’s going to last for.
“What I’m asking is the Government should allow me to come up with a solution to avoid hardship for those tenants.
“I can update someone’s kitchen or bathroom, but I cannot help someone who may be disabled, who may be affected by these changes. I should be able to do that. It’s not that much, relative to the overall budget.”
Martin Wicks, the secretary of Swindon Tenants’ Campaign Group, which is opposing the plans, said: “It means that some of the capital spent on our stock won’t take place. Once you give up the principle of taking this money out to make up for Government cuts, then where do you stop?
“What do they do next year? Do they think we will take £1m out? It’s a slippery slope. If they do that, they’re accepting the deterioration of the condition of stock.”
Derek Fry, of Swindon Tenants’ Voice, said: “I’m now between a rock and a hard place because I can see both sides of the argument. Why should rentpayers’ money be used to help people that are affected?
“And I can see it from the other side. For someone affected by it, it could be a lifeline.”