Thursday, 20 June 2013

Taking Croydon's Housing Debate Further

I attended Tuesday's Scrutiny meeting discussing the welfare and housing issues (see previous blog). 

Although Dr Jason Cummings, the Chair, knew I was there and that I had said I might want to speak, he did not ask me whether I wanted to do so. I decided not to ask and the next day was working on an email follow-up to him when he sent me the following:

‘I just wanted to say thank you for your interest and contribution on this paper. I hope you found the meeting enjoyable and covered some of your areas of concern. It is something scrutiny intends to 'stay close' to over the coming months.’

Importance of Acknowledging Public Engagement

This enabled me to do a lengthy response commenting on the debate but also stating:

·         ‘I was surprised that you moved to the next agenda without referring to the fact that a member of the public had sent all members and the Clerk a copy of a discussion note, and did not ask me whether I wanted to say anything.
·         It is important that if members of the public do try and engage through written submissions that this is recognised and formally mentioned in the minutes. Otherwise those who are cynical about engaging with the Council will see non-recognition as a sign of contempt for public engagement.
·         I decided not to interrupt and ask to speak, as I did not see why I should have to, given you knew I was present and had emailed you that I might want to speak.
·         I hope that when you report the minutes to the main Scrutiny Committee you will make a statement that a submission had been sent to members and that should be a matter of public record by being mentioned in the main Scrutiny minutes.
·         I also hope that you will ask the officers to give the Sub-committee members and myself a full reply to the questions and suggestions made. I attach an additional note which includes discussion on CPOing.’

In my email reply to Cllr Cummings I made the following observations on the debate.

‘Intentional Homelessness’ Due to Housing Benefit Cuts. ‘Cllr Mead should be congratulated on pressing on the issue of whether people should be deemed intentionally homeless if they fall into rent arrears because of the under-occupation housing benefit rules. Since he cannot get an answer from the Department, perhaps he could brief the three MPs with a view to them asking Parliamentary Questions. They also might be requested to ask for the details of how the pilot is to be monitored and will the report by publicly available.’

Council House Building. ‘I was pleased about Cllr Mead’s statements about the need for a bigger housing building programme and that the Council has started down the CPO route.’

‘Behaviouabkle Change’. 'I am uneasy about the talk of ‘behavioural change’ rather than enabling people to increase their opportunities to get out of the welfare problems they are locked into. There is an element of ‘Big Brother’ control/diktat in the last pages of the welfare presentation. I welcome the flexible approach to fraud/error, as it is very easy due to lack of knowledge to slip technically into ‘fraud’.’

Role of Social Workers? ‘It seemed clear from the discussion that more thought needs to be given to the role of Social Services. To what extent are all  social workers trained in welfare rights advice for all the people they help?’

Moving Into Worse Situations. ’Emphasis was put on the fact that some deemed intentionally homeless find their own solutions. Out of desperation people often find ‘solutions’ that make the situation worse; going into smaller accommodation meaning they are overcrowded; moving in with friends and relatives who may not have sufficient space to accommodate them; moving to other parts of the country disrupting their children’s schooling; losing jobs in London;  and losing their friendship/family support networks. If they move out of Croydon and crises brews again, it will be another Council that has to deal with the situation.’

Effect on Schooling. ‘It would be interesting to talk to the Heads of 2/3 primary schools serving an area where there is a high concentration of private rented lettings and people on benefits to find out what the turnover in registered children is and what the Heads know about why families are having to move, what disruptive effect this has on all children’s education and any additional costs on the schools budgets. It would also be interesting to know whether special sessions are provided at schools on welfare benefits advice.’

Helping Those With Mental Health and Learning Difficulties. ‘I was very pleased about the recognition that people with mental health and learning difficulties need to be supported in ways that recognise the problems they have to cope with. One of the negative consequences  with sending letters which are difficult to understand is that it can create great anxiety and a reaction to ignore the letter rather than seek advice. For those with mental health difficulties it can led to crises that may require medical and mental health professionals help – which is costly. I was not quiet clear on the exact involvement with MIND but  it would make sense to try and avoid sending letters to those with known mental health difficulties – whether officially registered with a mental health or just users of voluntary sector services, and make arrangements to talk with them face to face. When people are discharged from working with a mental health the responsibility for dealing with any further mental health problems rest with their GPs.  Has any consideration been given to discussing the welfare issues with GPs and health visitors and how they can assist  the work? Are other voluntary mental health support providers also being consulted along with MIND?’

Continual Flow Of Housing Benefit Problems. ‘While the emphasis is on supporting those who are identified from the benefit etc records, given the high turnover in the private rented sector there is going to be a continual flow of new people who will be affected by the welfare reforms who will need support in the future. While I hope Cllr Mead is right that private sector rents will decrease, there has been a upward trend in house prices in London and a lot more activity in buying to rent.  Therefore it is likely that private sector rent levels will rise adversely affecting another tranche of tenants.’

Managing Private Sector Lettings. ‘Given the problems with private sector lettings and management agents is there any scope for the housing associations to set up a lettings/management agency to which the Council could steer the private sector landlords it is working with to sign up with. This hopefully might reduce the management costs and therefore help to keep rent levels stable?’

Elderly Under-occupation. ‘On the issue of under occupation by elderly people in Council housing, rightly it should not be about compulsion. However it may be that there are single people/couples in the late 50s and 60s who would welcome the opportunity to be assisted to move to smaller accommodation, reducing their expenditure, especially energy and water.  The longer providing such assistance is put off then more likely there is to be an adverse reaction if in later years when they are faced with not being able to cope properly in over large properties and will then have to move. If I understood it there is an empty sheltered housing block. If this is in the form of self-contained dwellings then this might be ideal to assist those who want to move from their under occupied homes.’ 

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