Tories threaten hundreds of private tenants in Blackheath and Westcombe Park

Combe Avenue and Westcombe CourtThink the new government’s changes to Housing Benefit will only effect people living in Kensington and Westminster? Think again. They may well force dozens of households in Blackheath and Westcombe park to economise or move out.

In Blackheath Westcombe ward, there is a real mixture of housing types, with millionaires often living next door to low-income families, the unemployed, and pensioners on low incomes. The 2001 census showed that only slightly more than half of households are owner-occupiers – another fifth live in the private rented sector, and a further quarter live in council homes or housing association homes. The 2011 census currently being carried out is not expected to show any great changes to these figures.

By and large, the different groups of people get on together well. There are no ghettos in Blackheath Westcombe ward – almost every street will contain people from all three groups (owner occupiers, private renting and social renting), and even on the Cator Estate there are some council homes. There are no large council estates containing only people renting – the council estates in the area are small, dotted about, and they all contain leaseholders who have bought their homes, and people who rent these homes from private landlords, as well as council tenants.

This rich mixture is now under threat. Like many areas of London, Blackheath and Westcombe Park could increasingly become somewhere where only the affluent or those lucky enough to have a secure tenancy on a council or housing association home can live (The new government is also threatening those secure tenancies, but that’s another column).

Council and housing association tenants may be mostly unaffected, as their rents fall below the threshold for the new caps that the Tories are introducing. The real sting in the tail is for those who rent private accommodation because they cannot find council housing locally, or have always lived renting from a private landlord and do not wish to move into more affordable homes, which in Blackheath and Westcombe Park are in very high demand.

These tenants will be faced with a double whammy: the Local Housing Allowance (the kind of Housing Benefit that most of them receive, known as LHA for short) will in future be fixed at 30% of the highest rents in the area, not 50%. There will also be a maximum cap on the total housing benefit payable, and for those who are under 35 the LHA they can claim will only be enough for a room in a shared house or flat, not a flat itself. Some may be able to absorb the extra rent bill, but many will be forced to move – it is estimated that across London as whole, 80,000 households may be forced to move.

Greenwich Council figures – and these are from politically neutral council officers, not Labour party spindoctors – estimate that most, if not all, the 114 households in Blackheath Westcombe ward which currently get LHA will lose out. Almost all will lose least £10 a week, many will lose more than £20 a week, and a few will lose more than £30 a week. Indeed, the highest average loss of Housing Benefit of any ward in the Borough (almost £16 a week on average) is here in Blackheath and Westcombe park . Many people living in privately-rented one-bed flats in outer areas of borough like Eltham and Abbey Wood will not lose out. But in areas like Greenwich, Westcombe Park, and Blackheath, where rents are higher, hundreds of households will lose out. These people are your neighbours, and many will have to either economise or move. And don’t fall for the tabloid myth that most of these people are workshy scroungers: 40% of Housing Benefit claimants are in work, and many of the others will be disabled or retired.

The government says it has put measures in place to help ease the pain, The first is a “Transition scheme”, which means that for some tenants the changes will not happen for another 21 months from now. But whenever the transition occurs (and the date is pretty arbitrary, based on the calendar month when your housing benefit claim was first made) it will be a cliff-edge, not a gradual transition – you will suddenly lose up to £50 a week from your housing benefit, with no phasing.

The government is also putting some extra money into the “Discretionary Housing Payment” budget. Discretionary Housing Payment (or DHP) is an extra pool of money that the council can use to top up people’s Housing Benefit in cases of genuine need, and I have seen its good effects: when a working single mother living locally approached me fro help some months ago to say her private landlord had put the rent up higher than the LHA level, I helped her obtain a DHP to tie her over while she looked for somewhere cheaper to move to locally, so she did not need to uproot her children from school by moving suddenly to somewhere cheaper far away.

But just as the total Housing Benefit bill for Greenwich is likely to be cut by £1.6m, the DHP allocation for Greenwich is being increased by a mere £20,000 from £320,000 in 2010/11 to £340,000 in 2011/12 – a small sticking plaster to cover a gaping wound left by the Tories’ cuts.

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One Response to Tories threaten hundreds of private tenants in Blackheath and Westcombe Park

  1. Pingback: Coalition Consequences: Benefits Cap hits those in private rented accommodation hardest | Blackheath Westcombe Labour

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