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Just short of 100 people attended a conference on Saturday 3rd March called by Leeds Tenants Federation to discuss the governments welfare reform bill and the impact of the proposed changes on tenants in Leeds.

Iain Dalton, Hyde Park & Headingley Socialist Party

Linda McNeill, the chair of the Federation introduced the meeting highlighting the housing crisis that currently exists with 1.7m on council house waiting lists and 2.6m trapped in overcrowded housing. She went on to explain that rather than the governments attacks on tenants being any sort of solution, the Federation had been calling for a cap on rents in the private sector, secure tenancies for private tenants and a building programme of social housing.

Steve Carey, Leeds City Council’s Cheif Officer for Revenue and Benefit, was introduced as a guest speaker to explain what the governments reforms were and how they would impact upon Leeds. He pointed out these were the most radical changes for some time and were mostly designed to cut spending (the bill for Housing Benefit and Local Housing Allowance is more than the bill for Income Support and Job Seekers Allowance combined), before explaining the devastating impact they could have on both private and social housed tenants.

The government has already imposed national caps of housing benefits that can be received and has also capped the benefit for large families, who now can’t claim for over a 4 bed property which has seen some already lose £100 a week. In the private sector, such caps are unlikely to make many landloards drop rents so the result could be forcing many tenants to move when landlords put the rents up higher than they can afford.

The changes in the socially rented sector will only affect working age tenants only and are due to come in April 2013. The major change is around so-called ‘under-occupancy’ where tenants have more bedrooms than they are deemed to require. The criteria in the social rented sector will be changed to that of the private rented sector, which would mean couples would only be entitled to a one-bedroom house, and children would be expected to share rooms upto the age of 10 if they are of different sexes and upto the age of 16 if they are the same sex.

The results of these changes would see those who were one bedroom over their ‘requirements’ to lose 10-15% of their benefit and those who are 2 bedrooms over to lose 25%. However, as the speaker pointed out, there are very few one bedroom houses to move people into in the social sector. Leeds itself would see a reduction of around £4m in its spending on housing benefit as a result. The sums simply don’t add up on this change, as its often easier and cheaper to house those who are deemed to only ‘require’ one bedroom in a two-bed social sector property than in a one-bed private property.

There were several amendments to these changes that would have sought to protect people who have had adaptions to their housing for disabilities or those who are between fostering children. Instead councils will get a discretionary grant of £300,000 to £400,000 and have to decide where to drop the axe.

Another attack is the absolute cap on all benefits at £500 a month for those out of work. It is estimated that this will affect 67,000 families nationally, with around 400 families in Leeds (the bulk of the national total is in London and the South East). The government aim’s to have housing benefit be the first benefit cut from those bringing in over £500, again trying to get local council’s to do their dirty work.

The speaker pointed out that this could mean some families lose all their housing benefit entitlement, with those greatest to be affected being families with more than 5 children. What could face these families elicited gasps from those attended as he spelt out how they would lose their homes and possibly have their children taken into care as a result of these proposals.

There are a few other changes, council tax benefit will be scrapped and replaced by a new scheme with 10% less funding meaning Leeds would face a £5.5m cut. Additionally the government’s proposed Universal Credit would see all benefits administered by DWP/HMRC on a monthly basis, with responsibilities taken off the council, and is likely to require applying for it online. One consequence of this is likely to be an increase in rent arrears, as well potential accesibility issues.

These attacks and others spelt out in the welfare reform bill are nothing short of a declaration of war against the poor. So what is Labour-led Leeds City Council doing to fight this – absolutely ditto apart from complete the usual consultation processes. This was spelt out when the speaker said “We can’t stop these changes happening”, which pretty much sums up the labour council’s position on all the cuts. A campaigner later told me how local Labour MP’s Ed Balls and Rachel Reeves both promised to do lots to publicise the Federations campaigns against these reforms and have delivered nothing. As one person said during the conference, “we’ve been failed by all the political parties”.

But the Federation has been campaigning on these issues, and other local ones such as the 6.8% rent increase imposed in their recent budget or the 6,000-7,000 empty private properties in the council area. The Federation is aiming to step up its involvement in the Housing Emergency campaign, which takes up these issues, with a public meeting and day of action likely in the near future.

Tenants living in Leeds can join Leeds Tenants Federation at http://www.leedstenants.org.uk/webform/sign-me