By Tony Stacey, Chief Executive of South Yorkshire Housing Association
It’s Thursday, 26 October. It is the morning after the night before. Yesterday, the Prime Minister announced that the Government’s proposal to apply the Local Housing Allowance Cap to care and supported housing tenants was to be dropped. This reckless measure, first announced by George Osborne in November 2015, has threatened to wipe out new supported housing schemes across the country, and many services were threatened with closure. The announcement was greeted in our office with SYHA people clapping, hugging, dancing and even crying. The collective, audible sigh of relief at our Board meeting later in the afternoon could have been heard in Downing Street.
By chance, I attended a seminar immediately after the announcement at which Lord Bob Kerslake, the former head of the Civil Service was speaking. I asked him whether he thought it was the evidence or the politics which had led to the U-turn. He replied that, in his experience, it was always the politics, but stressed how significant the relentless collection of data and evidence was in shunting the political dial.
The housing sector did a fantastic job on this issue. Supported housing teams worked closely with colleagues in marketing to really rev up the narrative. The pressure, in the end, became irresistible and the government line withered in the face of it.
What can we learn from this to at least mitigate some of the worst effects of welfare reform for our customers? The need to do this is both pressing and urgent. Numerous studies have set out the evidence; most recently, research from Croydon and Southwark Councils has found that two thirds of their tenants affected by UC are now in serious rent arrears (with an average of £700 debt)[i].
The other debate during Prime Ministers’ Questions yesterday related to evictions. Teresa May stated that no social housing landlord could evict a tenant for short term rent arrears as a result of UC. In its simplistic form this construction is correct, but the truth is that there is something very different happening on the ground just now. I have spoken to two Chief Executives recently who have told me that the number of tenants they are evicting has risen sharply over the last 12 months (and before UC has fully impacted). For one association the rate has doubled.
The reality is that, for many tenants, the cumulative impact of welfare reform can kill the fight that poor people have left in them. Some customers are, effectively, saying “if you are telling me you are going to evict me, you will need to bring it on, I can’t struggle anymore”.
So far, SYHA has been able to avoid this. The rate at which we are evicting customers is marginally down year on year. But this has cost us. Not in terms of rent arrears – our rent arrears have reduced every year for the last 4 years – but in terms of the resources we are putting in.
The SYHA answer to our “why” question is:
“With SYHA you can settle, live well and realise your potential”
We therefore see our mission as working with people to enhance their health, wellbeing, employment prospects etc. If I could abide the word “holistic”, I would use it! What this means for us is that we will engage with our customers and support them to stand firm in the face of draconian cuts, the relentless tabloid narrative that seeks to demean them and the temptation to throw in the towel.
Whether I will feel quite so positive once UC is fully rolled out remains to be seen. One point I am completely clear on though is that there is no point in saying our mission is to defeat homelessness, unless we are straining every sinew not to contribute to it ourselves.
[i] One of the research centres within SIPS – the Centre for Regional Economic and Social Research (CRESR) – has been at the forefront of research into the impact of welfare reforms, and UC, specifically. Two recent outputs on the subject by the CRESR welfare reform team include: