Saturday, 10 October 2015

Anger on the streets

Protests against the government’s controversial bedroom tax are being staged across the country ahead of the policy’s implementation on 1 April. Carl Brown joins a march in Liverpool to hear first-hand how tenants will be affected and find out why social landlords are now being blamed

‘I was going to ask whether you are here for the bedroom tax protest,’ says the cab driver once he knows who I am. ‘It’s been all over the radio, people are up in arms and rightly so,’ he tells me as we head out of Liverpool Lime Street station to Bootle in nearby Sefton.

It is apparent within minutes of arriving in Merseyside that the bedroom tax is now big news. Previously the preserve of policy wonks, benefits officers and housing professionals, the bedroom tax has entered the national consciousness. While David Cameron is now frequently interrogated about the controversial policy at prime minister’s questions, anger is starting to spill onto the streets. Protests are planned by left-wing think tank Labour Left in 16 cities as part of a ‘day of action’ on 16 March, but the first big demonstration, not organised by Labour Left, is here in Bootle.

This is no coincidence. With high unemployment, high levels of deprivation and a large social housing stock, Bootle was always going to be hit hard by the controversial policy, which will cut benefit for working-age social housing tenants with spare rooms from 1 April.

Sefton Council estimates 3,705 households will be affected in the borough of Sefton as a whole. Throw in the fact the area is solidly Labour with a history of activism (many of the protesters reminisce about the battle against the poll tax as they march) and it’s no surprise things are boiling over here first. The mood has not been helped by the fact Sefton Council is also passing on a 20 per cent cut in council tax benefit to working-age tenants.

Who is protesting against the bedroom tax, though, and where is their anger targeted - the government that introduced the policy or the landlords told to implement it?

‘We are a grassroots campaign, for the people of the people, we are not affiliated to any party or trade union,’ insists Ritchie Jones, of protest organiser Stand Up In Bootle. While Trades Union Congress, the Public and Commercial Services Union and the Rail, Maritime, Transport union and the Socialist Party are represented today, the bulk of protesters appear to be tenants who will be directly hit by the policy.

Blame game

As we arrive on one of the first sunny days of the year, it is clear the occasion will not be a damp squib. A growing crowd of protesters, sharing their anger at the tax, gather outside an office of 11,500-home association One Vision Housing readying themselves to march to a Sefton Council building nearby. This is sending out a clear message; it’s not just the government that is being blamed, but also social landlords that many here feel are ‘complicit’ in the introduction of the penalty.

Protester Paul Cooper, a full-time carer for a disabled woman, will be hit by the charge. ‘Of course we are prepared to blame them [landlords], because they are prepared to impose this tax on us rather than stand up to the government,’ he says.

Protestor outside the offices of One Vision housing association

‘We want the councils and the social landlords to come together and tell government they cannot implement this policy,’ Mr Cooper adds.

Mr Jones, who is wearing a t-shirt displaying the slogan ‘Cameron is a tw*t’, nods his head in agreement. ‘Nobody is prepared to stand up for the people,’ he says.

By now, hundreds of people have gathered for the march brandishing multi-coloured banners baring slogans such as ‘axe the tax’ and ‘tax the rich not the poor’, while others blow horns and trumpets. An organiser announces the march is about to begin and warns protesters to behave themselves and not give the media any excuse to portray them negatively. As it happens, he need not have worried. The protest is spirited but good-natured.

The march is delayed for several minutes to allow people in mobility scooters and parents with push chairs to go to the front. Then a van blasting out Bob Marley’s ‘Get Up, Stand Up’, leads the roughly 300-strong throng onto the main road, where police have stopped the traffic in one direction. ‘Here, grab hold of that mate,’ says one protester, thrusting a yellow ‘axe the bedroom tax’ sign into my hand. In the interests of journalistic neutrality I hastily pass it to someone else.

Cutting back

As we march I speak to some of those who will be hit hardest. Most are either disabled or are in particularly difficult situations.

Karen Williams, 54, lives with her schizophrenic brother, and will be hit by the tax because she has a spare room. She has concluded the only way she can pay is by cutting down on food or gas. ‘It is a good job summer’s coming soon, isn’t it?’ she adds ruefully.

Carole Tartt, 52, is disabled due to a bicycle accident and has a 28-year-old son who has learning difficulties and Asperger Syndrome. She is facing a £14-a-week cut in her benefit because she has a small spare bedroom that her partner’s children use when they come to stay.

Ms Tartt dismisses the suggestion that affected tenants take in lodgers to avoid losing some of their benefit. ‘You don’t want to take a lodger in, you don’t know them,’ she points out.

Rent threat

Ms Tartt says she will ‘refuse to pay the tax’, though technically this is not possible as it will be deducted automatically from her entitlement. What she means is that she will pay less rent to her landlord One Vision Housing. ‘Let them take me to court, they can’t get blood out of a stone,’ she says.

This threat of non-payment is shared by many of the protesters, who chant ‘can’t pay, won’t pay’ as they march.

Plus Dane tenant Juliet Edgar says she will also refuse to pay. She is calling for unionised workers at councils and associations to vote for non co-operation with the implementation of the tax, which would entail them refusing to administer tenants’ details so they can’t be charged. Ms Edgar says local planning policies have led to a shortage of small homes for people to downsize into. ‘They seem to think social tenants live out of a suitcase,’ she says. ‘I have put a lot of work into making my home a nice place to live.’

Mr Cooper says direct payment of benefit to tenants will give them more scope to withhold rent as a protest.

Some of the other protesters are not affected but have come out in support. Zoe Smith, 23, with her two-year-old daughter Keisha, have come ‘to support the community’. Passers-by also seem to be largely supportive and motorists, including at one stage a bus driver, are ‘honking’ in support.

So what should social landlords make of this?

The suggestion that they simply do not co-operate by withholding data about their tenants is given short shrift by Sam Lister, policy and practice officer at the Chartered Institute of Housing. He points out that it would be fraudulent for landlords to attempt to allow tenants to keep benefit to which the law says they are not entitled.

This is echoed by Kevin Appleton, income manager at One Vision Housing, who says: ‘We too have lobbied against the proposals, [but] we have a responsibility to ensure that Sefton Council has accurate information on our properties both in terms of ensuring tenants are not put into debt and claims are paid at the correct rate.’

Last resorts

More worrying for social landlords is the prospect of large numbers of tenants withholding rent, causing a spike in arrears. Last week Coast and Country Housing threw its weight behind a summit of tenant representatives from 19 north east associations who are planning a mass protest of 100,000 tenants, the date of which is yet to be decided. If tenants go one step further and refuse to pay rent en masse, landlords would face big problems.

Both One Vision Housing and another local landlord Cobalt Housing, a subsidiary of 39,000-home Symphony Housing Group, say they will use ground 8 eviction notices, which allow fast-track evictions, in extreme cases. Cobalt says an example of such circumstances would be if tenants were ignoring efforts to make contact about arrears. But there is a danger these cases could become more common.

As I leave, a union representative is telling the crowd the ‘fightback’ against the bedroom tax has now started. The government will be hoping protests are contained to a minimum while social landlords across the country will pray there is no mass non-payment of rent in the months to come.

The bedroom tax in numbers

660,000 estimated number of households that will be affected by the bedroom tax initially

420,000 estimated number of disabled households affected

14 per cent housing benefit cut for tenants with one spare room

25 per cent housing benefit cut for tenants with more than one spare room

16 years the age below which same sex siblings are expected to share a room

10 years the age below which siblings of different sexes are expected to share

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