Welfare reform for rural housing?

ARE there any issues coming out of welfare reform for those in rural housing? Stuart Davies finds out.

ARE there any issues coming out of welfare reform for those in rural housing? Stuart Davies finds out.

In recent weeks there has been much in the press about the Welfare Reform Bill and its implications. In early March following many attempts at amendment in the Lords the government is finally expected to get over the finish line and the bill should receive royal assent.

I believe Mr Duncan Smith, the Minister charged with delivering reform, has a real passion to address the ills of our welfare system. I support his concept of 'universal credit' and the minister has to be applauded for taking on a benefit system that has needed overhaul for at least two if not three decades.

Who can argue with the sense of providing incentives to work, a balance of carrot and stick? It has to be right that if someone is working they will have more in their pocket than someone who relies on benefit.

That said I have serious misgivings about some of the short term changes which precede that longer term shift to Universal Credit.

Take the plan to cap benefits, this is a problem not because £26K isn't a reasonable amount of money for a family to live on, it is, but the reality is a significant chunk of that for many will go to a private landlord to cover the rent and not on the standard of living of the tenant.

The rent is a product of supply and demand. Applying a maximum cap which bears no relation to different housing markets seems harsh and will penalise not just those in London but many in rural areas where rented accommodation social or private may well be scarce.

Evidence from the move to restrict the level of housing allowance payable in the private rented sector suggests the cap on benefits will not lead to private landlords lowering rents. Turning off the housing benefit tap has only a small effect on the private rented market particularly in high demand areas. What's more likely to happen is landlords will shy away from letting to those who rely on benefits. That can only put more strain on the stock of affordable homes and ultimately on local authority housing and homelessness services.

And the implications of the cap are not restricted just to the private rented sector. In council and housing association properties where rents are linked through the existing rent regime to high capital values many families with three or more children are likely to face a reduction in their housing benefit as a result of the overall cap. This will lead to real ethical dilemmas amongst Council and Housing Association providers about the level of rent charges and the way rent arrears are chased.

Dilemmas matched by a further change to be introduced in the act which will penalise under occupancy of homes in the social rented sector.

The National Housing Federation has dubbed it a Bedroom tax. Housing Benefit will be cut by 13% if a tenant has a spare room, 23% if they have two. Residents are expected to stump up the difference or move on. In many rural locations this could see small families, couples or single parents who have seen one or more of their children move out having to make really difficult choices about their future priorities.

No doubt many will start to fall behind with the rent. Many more may feel forced to move out in order to find smaller more affordable accommodation. Having to uproot in a rural area with limited public transport and larger distances may mean severing links with village communities and local support networks built up over a lifetime.

It may also threaten new developments where properties built with a specific requirement to be let to those with a local connection are sometimes let on the basis of that connection rather than on the basis that the family will fully occupy the home.

So how does that help us build strong, resilient and sustainable communities? It doesn't the trouble is the real answer lies in the imbalance of supply and demand for homes across England and unfortunately whether in rural or urban areas we can see no solution immediately on the horizon to that structural problem the fact is there will be no money on the scale needed for new homes.

Let's just hope and work towards minimising as best we can the cruellest effects of the welfare changes on the lives of those who have to rely on welfare and hope that when the detail comes out on what the universal credit looks like that it doesn't contain similar penalties.


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