Article published: Friday, June 26th 2015
Protesters gathered outside Manchester Central conference centre yesterday to express their anger at the government’s housing policy. While Tory housing minister Brandon Lewis was delivering the keynote speech at the annual conference of the Chartered Institute of Housing (CIH), campaigners warned of the ongoing disastrous impact of the bedroom tax and the deepening homelessness crisis.
Organised by the Anti Bedroom Tax Federation for Greater Manchester (ABTF), and supported by the Manchester branch of the People’s Assembly alongside trade unionists from around the region, and anti-bedroom tax campaigners from Bolton, Halifax and Leeds, the protest sought to highlight mounting risk to struggling families of a government strategy that is seen as deeply harmful. Activists argue that an alternative to further cuts and austerity-driven reform is desperately needed.
Mark Krantz, ABFT secretary, said: “Our message to Brandon Lewis is: your party’s policies will lead to even more people being rendered destitute in Greater Manchester and beyond.” Amid government plans to sell off social housing and implement further benefit sanctions, and the continuation of the bedroom tax in England, campaigners are concerned that thousands could be left homeless.
Following proposals to lower the household benefit cap, housing associations forecast a sharp increase in rent arrears and evictions last month. The Department for Work and Pensions has defended its plans, claiming they will provide incentive for people to “change behavior” and seek employment, but an internal government report has stated a further 40,000 children could drop below the official poverty line if parents fail to secure extra work.
Campaigners are alarmed at the impact on those worst hit by the housing crisis. Tess Simpson from Bolton Against The Bedroom Tax said: “Communities are being torn apart, mental illness increases and suicide rates are going up, people are suffering. Families have to make a choice between heating their homes and feeding their kids.”
The Bolton group offers support and guidance to residents affected by the bedroom tax. “We help people ranging from the elderly and sick to those in full-time work”, said campaigner Len Taylor. “We are fighting isolation – we visit people at home, accompany them to court, put them in touch with a solicitor. We have seen adults reduced to tears at public meetings, people who never thought they would face eviction.”
According to government figures, the number of tenants evicted for rent arrears soared by 19 per cent in the first year of the bedroom tax alone while court bailiffs were called to almost 7,000 local authority tenants in the same period. Councils have reported that there are now 1,500 homes with more than one bedroom they are unable to let. “Houses are standing empty because people are scared to take them. They know that any change in circumstances means they will be punished by this tax”, said Taylor.
In 2014, the United Nations called for the ‘spare room subsidy’, the official term for the bedroom tax, to be immediately suspended. Inspectors concluded that the policy was disproportionately affecting the “most vulnerable and fragile.” This verdict was dismissed by the then housing minister Kris Hopkins as “misleading Marxist diatribe.”
Campaigners hope to open a dialogue with conference delegates and local politicians. “People need professionally managed, secure, decent and affordable private rented homes in sustainable communities”, said Pollyanna Steiner from tenant advocacy group Generation Rent. But fears are that another five years of Conservative rule and the rising number of homeless in Manchester will only worsen the crisis.
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