Blackpool council’s plan to cut benefits is no way to tackle the housing crisis, so says Sam Lister of the Chartered Institute of Housing (CIH).
The famous seaside resort has taken the drastic step of requesting the Treasury to allow it to cut Housing Benefit for its residents, but “tenants should not pay for the sins of their landlords” according to Lister.
The thinking behind the move, apparently, is as Blackpool Council hoped; a cut in Housing Benefit would encourage private landlords to improve their properties and discourage the glut of people on Housing Benefit migrating to the Fylde coast resort.
Just like many other seaside towns across Britain, Blackpool is now over-run with under occupied former guest-houses and small hotels, no longer fully viable for tourists. They themselves have migrated to the beaches of Spain and Greece, leaving the accommodation to be converted into bedsits or large houses in multiple occupations (HMOs), many of which are now in extremely poor condition.
As demand for holidays has gone down, so have private rents in the area, many of which are paid for by Housing Benefits. As a result, like many other seaside resorts around Britain’s coasts, the town has become a magnet for poor and vulnerable people suffering with a whole range of social issues.
The CIH has reported that earlier in 2015 Blackpool council asked the Treasury for powers to cut the amount of Housing Benefit paid to its residents by up to 30%. The Council thought that if it were allowed to cut the amount of Housing Benefit paid out to private landlords, who often are renting out substandard accommodation, this would provide a big incentive for them to improve the quality of their rentals.
It may also, the Council argued, discourage people on housing benefit gravitating towards Blackpool, and as this demand went down private landlords would be forced improve their offer to attract a tenant clientèle with a different demographic.
The suggestion was quickly rejected by The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) saying that councils already had “wide-ranging powers to tackle substandard housing”.
But, as Lister points out, it is true that councils have wide-ranging legal powers to tackle low rental standards, but many Councils’ claim they do not have enough resources, especially in areas such as Blackpool, where the problem is so pronounced.
Lister questions the morality of penalising vulnerable people’s right to choose where they live because of something their landlord has failed to do.
Blaming a severe housing shortage as the root of the problem, Lister argues:
“The link between the quality of accommodation and rent levels is now extremely weak. It’s determined by location and levels of demand – so a one-bedroom flat in Kensington is more expensive than a family home in Grimsby, for example. The entire system of housing benefit over the past 30 years has been based on the assumption that housing benefit will cover a “reasonable” market rent. As it’s the market that determines that level, you won’t change it by reducing the amount of housing benefit people receive but by building more homes.
“…In our work with the Resolution Foundation we have suggested that targeting the tax breaks that landlords currently enjoy to reward those who sign up for a national accreditation scheme could be combined with more effective regulation. But we also need to focus on making housing more affordable, which would have the happy side effect of making it less likely that landlords would be able to charge exorbitant rents for poor-quality homes.”
Sam Lister is policy and practice officer at the Chartered Institute of Housing
— LandlordZONE (@LandlordZONE) March 24, 2015