Councils fear over housing benefit cut

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The Independent Online

More than half of councillors in England are worried about the strain on public services caused by cuts to housing benefit, according to a survey.

Research for housing and homelessness charity Shelter has shown 52% were fearful that families moving as a result of cuts to housing benefit will put extra pressure on schools, hospitals and advice and support services.

The online poll of 1,065 councillors conducted earlier this month found 61% believed that their local authority did not have enough resources to cope.

Nearly three in five, 59%, said they believed there would be "significant" knock-on costs to their local authority as a result of the changes.

The survey found that nearly half, 49%, of councillors said they did not support the scale of the Government's cuts.

Shelter chief executive Campbell Robb said: "Shelter is already seeing an increased demand for our services, and all the evidence shows this will only get worse when these cuts start to bite.

"Now we know that councillors across the country, and from all political parties, are also deeply concerned about the consequences of these changes and how they are going to deal with the fall-out from thousands of local people losing their homes.

"It's time councils made clear to Government the true impact of these changes on their local area so that plans can be put in place to prevent complete chaos from erupting in our communities."

Discussing the changes, the leader of Liberal Democrats on Richmond-upon-Thames council in London, Stephen Knight, told the BBC: "It's really, really pernicious, nasty stuff from this Government and they're clearly Conservative-led policy changes, but in my view Liberal Democrat MPs and ministers have not done nearly enough to prevent these from coming through either."

David Skinner, a Conservative councillor in Coventry and a director of a housing association, said: "People in ordinary jobs living ordinary lives, I thought, would be confused by the sheer pace of change - and worried.

"So my comment, in effect, was although I'm a loyal member of the Conservative Party and I support the Conservative Party, I didn't think frankly that we were doing as good a job as we might have done on explaining why and in good time."

Secretary of State for Work and Pensions Iain Duncan Smith defended the changes to housing benefit.

"The failure of the last Labour government to reform housing benefit has left us in the absurd situation where some benefit claimants can claim over £100,000 a year to live in large houses in expensive areas," he said.

"This is unacceptable when hard-working individuals and families are struggling either to find affordable private rents or pay their mortgages.

"Scare stories that housing benefit changes will force thousands of families from their homes are nonsense and are causing unnecessary distress.

"A small number of people may have to move and we are providing local authorities an additional £190 million over the next four years to smooth the transition.

"Instead of complaining, responsible councils should be working to effectively implement these policies, and recognise that we are trying to get people off benefits and into work, and drive the cost of the benefits bill to taxpayers down."

Westminster Council in central London said it backed the changes.

Philippa Roe, cabinet member for strategic finance, said: "We are very supportive of the reforms to the housing benefit system as we simply cannot continue with a system where people were getting as much as £104,000 a year to live in homes that the average family would only dream of.

"Ultimately, the state should not be providing accommodation that working people could not afford themselves.

"We are providing support and assistance for every family affected by the new caps and will talk to landlords to try to negotiate lower rents, provide support to vulnerable people or help tenants that need financial advice.

"There is no need for anyone to end on the streets, in a bed and breakfast or hostel."