Tenant’s voice: Forget me not
First Published 04 November 2015
When Alastair Darling spoke at the Labour Party conference he gave an assurance that the government would ‘do whatever it takes’ to counter the effects of the recession. This has now become the administration’s mantra.
Demonstrating this commitment, the government agreed to nationalise buy-to-let lender Bradford & Bingley to the tune of £50 billion. This bail out followed the earlier nationalisation of Northern Rock, with loans and lending guarantees of some £55 billion.
It’s right for the government to step in to avert a massive economic crisis. But the prospects remain horrendous, and the people being hit hardest are those in greatest housing need. Mortgages are now more expensive and difficult to get, and those aspiring to affordable home ownership will have to think again.
The slowdown in housing development means that those hoping for a social rented home will have to wait even longer, and for many, their chances of accessing social housing are nil. The ‘hidden homeless’ staying with friends or family will remain there for longer, causing the number of overcrowded households to rise.
The only other option, the private rented sector, is seeing rents rise as demand increases.
It’s not surprising that another rising demand is for housing advice. This comes at a time when advice agencies are struggling to survive. Local authority funded provision has decreased as grants to the voluntary sector have reduced. Meanwhile councils’ in-house advice services have been transmuted into housing options teams, bent on dissuading homeless families from presenting as homeless and triggering a rehousing duty.
Legal Services Commission contracts which began in October 2014 have caused an exodus from the legal aid system of housing solicitors, and have placed the not-for-profit advice sector at risk of insolvency.
Islington Community Law Centre describes the situation: ‘The Commission’s target is to increase “acts of assistance” within the same cost to the Treasury. This is misconceived, since what really counts is whether a difference is made to someone’s life¬†-10 people receiving a bit of advice and a letter is not necessarily better than two people being housed, and two people keeping their jobs.
‘There is a loss of quality and a loss of capacity to take on the most vulnerable clients. Our housing team is being expected to deliver almost four times as many cases to generate the same income as under the old contract‚Ä¶ This means we can do less homelessness work, in which we had a good track record.
‘We are turning away around 50 homelessness cases a month as we cannot afford to take them on and have any chance of meeting our target.’
Brent Community Law Centre puts it succinctly: ‘We face a stark choice¬†-dumb down the work we do for clients or face bankruptcy.’
Mr Darling, please do ‘whatever it takes’ to enable the real victims of the recession, those in housing need, to access the advice they need to change their lives. If more than £100 billion can be found to shore up Northern Rock and Bradford & Bingley to protect, among others, buy to let landlords, surely a mere £2.6 million for a 10 per cent increase in advice for tenants is not too much to ask?
Paul Ograe is director of Brent Private Tenants’ Rights Group.