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Housing & Poverty – Bedroom tax

Building a movement

Where next for the campaign against the bedroom tax? Jamie Insole looks at successes so far and the next steps following the UK Conservative election victory

CARDIFF & SOUTH WALES Against the Bedroom Tax (C&SWABT) is an extraordinary organisation. A grassroots campaign federation emerging from the early 2013 protests, we swiftly developed past council lobbies towards targeted advocacy. Forging coalitions, initiating forums and ultimately delivering policy, C&SWABT has prided itself on its ability to cut through tangled knots with a very sharp sword.

Our story really began with the December ‘Pre-96’ campaign. For those of you who remember, the inimitable Joe Halewood unearthed Regulation CPR2006, indicating that social tenants enjoying uninterrupted tenures were, in fact, exempt from the charge. Pushing home our advantage in Wales, we successfully colonised housing benefit departments, established our credibility with decision makers and began to co-opt resistance across the sectors labyrinthine establishment.

Similar initiatives around the repatriation of discretionary housing payments (DHPs) and a coherent appeals strategy, where combined with attacking media, provided the campaign with every opportunity to initiate problems to which we could offer solutions. We produced policy, tabled coalition letters, met with senior Welsh Government civil servants, convened a sector-wide conference and launched pilots. Most importantly, we refreshed tenant participation and involved hundreds in the process of power!

Having forged several close partnerships with RSLs across South Wales a number of things strike me. Deferred funding cuts have degraded the sinews and tendons of our communities. However, campaigns can provide the opportunity for radical engagement. It is no accident that some of our closest relationships emerged from those set piece conflicts that were frequently decided in the national press.

Initial predictions around the collapse of the social rented sector engendered a policy culture in which RSLs sought indemnification at the expense of the tenant. Welsh Government and supported agencies focussed on ‘building tenant resilience’ operated as a foil for a ‘collections only’ policy which threw thousands into despair. All too often, the tenant was identified as the single unfixed point – the only stone that would avail to squeezing.

Happily for some, throughout 2013- 2014, C&SWABT, alongside other agencies such as Welsh Tenants, Shelter and TPAS began to shift this culture ‘beyond mitigation’. Our work was central to Welsh Government’s decision to award an additional £1.3 million DHPs whilst ensuring that local authorities and RSLs coordinated to deliver the existing fund. In excess of 20 organisations were represented at our April 2014 conference. CHC, CIH and five leading RSLs each explored the prospect of moving towards a rights-based advocacy system.

Moreover, our caseworkers lodged in excess of 260 appeals, opening new lines of communication with senior officers. This in turn provided a platform for negotiating category-wide exemptions that ultimately took anything up to 1,000 tenants out of the pernicious charge. It would be fair to say that, whilst the process was not always smooth, hard-pressed housing benefit departments ultimately gained through working with us.

Most significantly, C&SWBT successfully intervened to prevent in excess of 30 evictions and foreclosures, assisting tenants to find genuinely sustainable solutions whilst staving off proceedings both in the community and Welsh/UK media.

But what now? Whereas many looked with confidence towards the prospect of a national Labour Government, we can now expect a very different outcome. The funding gap will widen; the perfect storm of welfare reform (particularly benefit caps and sanctions) and uncertainty surrounding the imposition of universal credit seems set to paralyse the sector; ‘difficult decisions’ around whether to maintain council tax relief or embrace the devolution of housing benefit have not been addressed. And what of local government amalgamation? The Williams Report takes no account of the need to preserve best practice and maintain crucial sector relationships! Already, we see signals indicating a return to the same old expedient: equalise the cost of the social/ private rented sector, raise rents to fund repairs and new build, squeeze the tenant as the single unfixed point!

Any campaign requires a basic theory of change. C&SWABT has been fortunate in as far as we can borrow from the Scottish experience. We believe that a developing social movement can redefine the relationship between government and those whom it represents. This has nothing to do with nationalism – rather the increased tempo of politics can inform a greater respondency on the behalf of the elected.

C&SWABT rejects a model of government whereby embunkered representatives withdraw from our communities to administer ‘difficult choices’; where social landlords, bereft of any lead, are forced into corrosive relationships with tenants. We deplore the fact that there are Welsh tenants living below the United Nations absolute poverty line and will act robustly to prevent any bedroom tax eviction.

I still recall how, at the campaigns inception, a senior housing worker suggested that the sector was above ‘politics’. I laughed then and continue to laugh now. Ultimately, tenants want what the Scots have – an effective end to the bedroom tax in Wales. In the run-up to 2016 Cardiff & South Wales Against the Bedroom Tax and its affiliated tenant groups will refresh, then push for just that.

To borrow the strap-line of another organisation – expect us!

Jamie Insole is coordinator at Cardiff & South Wales Against the Bedroom Tax. Email: [email protected] gmail.com

 

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