21st February 2011

Government 'Equalities' Minister lobbied and challenged in Haringey over Government threats to cut housing rights and Housing Benefit


Equalities Minister Lynne Featherstone MP - challenged to oppose Government policies which discriminate against tenants and their families, and which she had opposed when in opposition - agrees to 'take up these concerns with the relevant ministers'.


Four Haringey Council tenants met Lynne Featherstone, Liberal Democrat MP for Hornsey and Wood Green, and Equalities Minister, at her constituency surgery at Hornsey Library on Friday, 18 February. The four included representatives of Haringey Defend Council Housing and the Haringey Federation of Residents Associations.

We wanted to discuss the Government's controversial proposed cuts to Housing Benefit, the introduction of time-limited tenancies with near-market rents for some new council and housing association tenants, cuts to the Decent Homes programme of improvements to council housing, and the disastrous affects housing benefit caps would have on private tenants.

Lynne Featherstone did not rush to explain or defend her own government's housing policies. Indeed, she claimed that her views had not changed since she signed Parliamentary Early Day Motions in 2006 and 2007 [see below] in which she committed to actively oppose "both the stigmatisation of council housing as housing of last resort and proposals to means test or time-limit secure tenancies", and to suggest that "direct investment in decent, affordable, secure and accountable council housing is now essential'. These commitments she made are now being diametrically opposed by the Government she is now part of.

However Ms Featherstone also argued that the Housing Benefit cuts had been misreported, and had been wrongly described as 'ethnic cleansing'. We replied that this government has dropped New Labour's policy objective of 'creating mixed and balanced communities' in favour of excluding poor people from mixed-income neighbourhoods, and that this could be fairly described as 'social cleansing'.

Ms Featherstone said that some people in council housing no longer had any need for it. We argued that secure housing is essential to sustainable communities, and asked what would happen if a tenant was evicted because they had found work by the end of a two-year tenancy then lost their job. Would they go to the back of the housing queue? Ms Featherstone said that was a worrying point she had not heard before and would have to think about.

Ms Featherstone said that Labour's promises on the Decent Homes programme could not be delivered upon because 'there's no money'. This led to angry exchanges about the rich, who have no shortage of money, and Government financial policies favouring corporations and banks.

We argued that as Equalities Minister, Ms Featherstone should be concerned about - and indeed actively opposing - housing policies that adversely and disproportionately affect and discriminate against poor families; and we also argued that these ill-considered policies would cause more homelessness, increasing the caseload at Ms Featherstone's constituency surgery.

Ms Featherstone promised to provide answers to the points we had raised with her. We said that was not enough. If she agreed with us, she should lobby against these policies inside the government. We mentioned the proposed council rent rise of 2009, when tenants argued with Councillors, Councillors raised their concerns with MPs, and MPs then convinced the Minister to cut the rent increases in half.

She seemed unaware and shocked at the extent and impact that her Government's plans would have on hundreds of thousands of tenants and their families, and promised to 'take up your concerns with the relevant ministers for housing and benefits'.

A group of over a dozen housing campaigners remained outside the Library during the surgery. They gave out anti-cuts leaflets and held posters 'Thatcher was the milk snatcher, Cameron and Clegg are the house snatchers' and 'Lynne Featherstone, shame on you for turning blue'. Afterwards, the delegation reported back to those outside, and it was agreed to continue raising housing issues in the Haringey Alliance for Public Services (HAPS) local anti-cuts campaign.


Paul Burnham
Haringey Defend Council Housing






Background notes for meeting with Lynne Featherstone, 18 February 2011


Housing Benefit

Cuts to HB for long-term unemployed [Now dropped Governmenment U-Turn]

Benefit caps - Cuts in HB for tenants with spare rooms ('under-occupation').

Local Housing Allowance is presently limited to the 50th percentile now to be limited to the 30th percentile (LHA claimaants only able to access the cheapest 30% of private sector rented properties in each area). This is the policy with the most devastating impact, especially in areas like Haringey

This is a policy retreat from 'mixed and balanced communities' (under New Labour), towards moving the poor out of mixed-income areas (residential segregation by income, or social cleansing).

None of these policies were in the Conservative or Lib Dem election manifestos.


Near-market rents and time-limited tenancies

New affordable housing development by registered providers (housing associations and private companies) is to be privately funded without public investment 'the end of social housing' according to Insiide Housing magazine.

New affordable housing development by registered providers is to be at so-called 'affordable rents' (80% of market rents) with short tenancies of as little as two years replacing 'social' rents and permanent tenancies.

'Affordable rent' developments are to be funded by guarantees of full HB support for these new, higher rents (Fat HB subsidies to landlords, when tenants are facing cuts to their HB entitlements)

New 'affordable rent' developments are to be matched by the conversion of a proportion of re-lets of existing housing association properties to 'affordable rent' (near-market rents and time-limited tenancies).

Time-limited tenancies mean eviction if tenants have found work, or if their income has increased. What if the work comes to an end or the pay increases were temporary.

Secure housing means strong communities, good health and better life chances. Insecure housing means poorer family lives, poor educational and health outcomes, and social exclusion in areas of transient population.

These policies mean no more provision of high class secure rented housing by local authorities and housing associations; and that only ownership will bring security of tenure.

None of these policies were in the Conservative or Lib Dem election manifestos.

In opposition, Lynne Featherstone was one of 37 Lib Dem MPs who signed an early day motion (EDM) in November 2007 which "actively opposes both the stigmatisation of council housing as housing of last resort and proposals to means test or time-limit secure tenancies".


Council Housing

Government set a 6.8% increase in council rents for April 2011 - way above inflation, at a time of job losses and pay freezes

Decent homes funding has been delayed even longer it may be that thhe decent homes standard, set in 2000, will not be achieved in Haringey until 2020.

New council house building, initiated on a small scale under the last government, has been scrapped by the Coalition. Housing workers are being hit by job losses, pay freezes and possible outsourcing.

Government has not yet conceded a financial level playing field between local authorities and housing associations. Other European countries exclude all housing borrowing from public debt, because it is supported by a rental income stream: housing is not quite like the NHS or state schools, because we pay rent for our council homes.

In opposition, Lynne Featherstone was one of 31 Lib Dem MPs who signed an early day motion in November 2006 which "suggests that direct investment in decent, affordable, secure and accountable council housing is now essential'


Summary

Housing is one of the main targets of Coalition Government 'reforms' attacking the rights of working people, and constrictinng the choices available to them, to increase opportunities for profit by banks and other financial institutions.

Government attacks on housing are intentionally divisive aiming to set workers against claimants, and homeowners against tenants.

None of it is justified by the increase in public debt due to the near collapse of the banks, and the bank bailouts in 2008. The government could chase corporate tax evaders and rich tax avoiders more effectively, cancel Trident, and end the pointless and unwinnable war in Afghanistan . They could tax the rich, who can afford to pay, instead of cutting services to the working class.

Housing is a key social issue, where rights and entitlements should be protected and enhanced. Politicians should therefore reconsider these misguided policies.


Thatcher was the milk snatcher Cameron and Clegg are the house snattchers.


Paul Burnham
Haringey Defend Council Housing