Challenging the benefit cap

Tackling Edinburgh’s housing crisis will be a litmus test of the new council over the next 5 years, says Alex Staniforth.

The first council meeting of the new term on 18th May brought the city’s housing crisis right into the heart of the City Chambers. A group of protestors, most of them mums with young children, highlighted the shock of imminent homelessness due to eviction from their private accommodation.

As I discovered when I spoke to them after the meeting, their plight is the result of the benefit cap coming home to roost. The cap, imposed by the UK Government, means that housing benefit no-longer matches rents and they find themselves staring down the barrel of rent arrears and homelessness through no fault of their own.

The families affected are not, as it seems the government in Westminster imagines, profligate people living in mansions thanks to the largesse of the state. They are the victims of three cruel circumstances – the level at which the benefit cap is set, soaring Edinburgh rents and the pitiful lack of social housing in the city. As a result of this triple whammy, the families fear ending up in Bed and Breakfast hostels which are not particularly suitable accommodation for anyone, let alone mothers with young children.

So what can Edinburgh do to prevent this looming tidal wave of homelessness?

Firstly, I believe the council should be using a fund called Discretionary Housing Payments (DHP) to offset the benefit cap, effectively topping up the housing benefit these families receive so that it matches the true cost of their rent until alternatives can be found.

On the surface this involves extra expenditure for a council tightening its belt but, as is so often the case, spending money now saves money later. It will cost the council far more to house families in B&B hostels than to pay a little extra per family per month to keep a roof over their head until such time as alternative housing can be found. To say nothing of the human cost on families.

Secondly the council must agree to use new powers to make all of Edinburgh a “Rent Pressure Zone”. Personally, I would like to go further and cap rents entirely, as the pressure group supporting these young mothers – All About Me – is asking. Unfortunately, that is not within the current powers of the council but the Rent Pressure Zone would apply the brakes to sky-rocketing rents and let Edinburgh’s tenants catch their breath.

Finally, and most importantly, this situation would never have come about were it not for the city’s critical lack of social housing. A lack of council and housing association owned homes is the cause of Scotland’s £1.8 billion/year housing benefit bill, not the profligacy of its recipients. The council must build more genuinely affordable housing to bring empty homes back into use and to encourage housing co-operatives which can build houses where tenants effectively set their own rents.

At the council meeting on 18 May at least one councillor complained that it was difficult to concentrate because of the noise of protest. If we can manage all of the above then their concentration would be unimpeded because there would not be any imminent homelessness to protest. No more worried young mothers desperately seeking to make their voice heard.

Until that day – which I hope is soon – it is important that councillors hear the stark truth.

This blog was first published in the Edinburgh Evening News on 29 May 2017