17:23 Thursday 11th April 2013
Drive BBC Radio Cambridgeshire
[C]HRIS MANN: Cambridgeshire has been named as one of the areas in Britain where people will be best off as a result of the Government’s welfare reforms. It says former industrial areas including Middlesborough, Liverpool and Glasgow will be disproportionately affected. However, wealthier areas, predominantly in the South, such as Cambridgeshire, Surrey and the Cotswolds, will see the smallest financial losses. In a moment we’ll debate the reforms with two local politicians, but first let’s find out more about the research. Here’s Professor Steve Fothergill, formerly of Cambridgeshire University, now of Hallam, who led the study. (TAPE)
STEVE FOTHERGILL: Well, everybody’s known that the welfare reforms were going to take large amounts of money out of people’s pockets and out of the economy. But what we’ve done is tried to look at where those people actually live, and therefore which areas are going to be hit hardest, and esentially what we’ve done is we’ve combined the Treasury’s own estimates of the impact of each of these reforms with the figures on how many people claim each of these benefits, up and down the country. And for the first time then we can see just how much some places are going to be hit, or indeed not be hit very much at all.
CHRIS MANN: Now, in the worst hit places, how bad will things be?
STEVE FOTHERGILL: In some of the worst hit places, we’re talking about losses which are going to average, across the entire working population, around about eight or nine hundred pounds a year. That’s averaging across everybody who’s in work, on benefit, everything. Now through to the other extreme, where it’s often not a great deal more than two hundred pounds a year that’s going to be taken out of people’s pockets. And I’ve got to say that the Cambridgeshire area, Cambridge and its surrounding area, is right at one end of the spectrum. Your area is going to escape more lightly than virtually anywhere in the country. And that’s to a large extent because there are so few benefit claimants in the Cambridge area, because so many people are in work.
CHRIS MANN: Steve, you know Cambridgeshire well as a graduate of Cambridge University for many years. Will we be insulated against some of the harshest bits of this, do you think?
STEVE FOTHERGILL: My mind goes back to the early 1980s here. I lived in Cambridge and worked in Cambridge in the early 80s when the economy of Northern Britain was collapsing. In Cambridge I remember you could be virtually oblivious of that happening. And to some extent it’s history repeating itself. In this instance it’s in the context of the welfare reforms. These reforms are going to hurt people very hard, and hurt some places very hard.
CHRIS MANN: Even here there’ll be those who will be worse off.
STEVE FOTHERGILL: Oh of course. You clearly will have some individuals in Cambridgeshire for whom the pain will be equal to what the pain is of somebody losing benefit in Middlesborough or Glasgow. But the fortunate thing in Cambridge, and the area more generally, is that compared to so many other parts of the country there are so relatively few of them. That’s not going to make the pain any less for those individuals who are affected adversely by these reforms. But it’s going to ease the pain and the damage to the local economy as a whole. (LIVE)
CHRIS MANN: Professor Steve Fothergill, formerly of Cambridge University, now of Hallam, for whom he did that research. Well listening to Professor Fothergill are two Cambridge City Councillors. Catherine Smart is the Liberal Democrat’s Executive Council Member for Housing. Hello Catherine.
CATHERINE SMART: Hello.
CHRIS MANN: Joining us on the phone. And Sue Birtle is here in the studio. She’s a Labour Councillor who’s calling on the City Council to protect vulnerable tenants in the face of the welfare changes. First of all let’s ask both of you for your reaction to the research there showing some parts of Britain will suffer, but Cambridgeshire not so bad. What do you think, Catherine Smart?
CATHERINE SMART: I was glad that he said the people who are affected will be equally affected in whatever part of the country they lived in, because when I first heard about his research, I felt very concerned that he was just taking average as average. And people aren’t averages. They’re themselves. And if somebody is affected, then they’re affected, wherever they live. He is of course perfectly correct to say that partly because we don’t have the high levels of unemployment in the Cambridge area, there are probably fewer people affected than there will be in some other parts of the country.
CHRIS MANN: Now Sue Birtle, you’re concerned about the impact, particularly of this so-called bedroom tax, as you call it, to protect vulnerable tenants. Tell us about that.
SUE BIRTLES: Well I think the study from Sheffield Hallam is actually correct in that there will be a much higher impact in the North of England. However we mustn’t forget there are great inequalities within Cambridge itself. And we have some wards, I can give the examples of East Chesterton, Arbury and Kings Hedges, where we already know that we have 30% of children living on the poverty line or below. And the estimates in Cambridge is that about 800 Cambridge City Council tenants are going to be affected by the impact of the bedroom tax. And so obviously there is going to be an impact here, although I accept that it will be much greater in the North of England.
CHRIS MANN: So what are you saying that the City Council should be doing?
SUE BIRTLES: Well we’re asking the City Council to protect vulnerable tenants who are affected by the tax, and also to ..
CHRIS MANN: How do you protect them? Sorry.
SUE BIRTLES: Well there is a discretionary housing payment fund, which currently has been set at a lower level than the Government allows in Cambridge. The Government have set a level for a maximum of £455,000 in this fund. And currently the Council has set this at £315,000. And it’s also within the gift of the landlord to decide what is classified as a bedroom or not, as there’s no legal definition of a bedroom.
CHRIS MANN: OK. Catherine Smart, can you respond to those points?
CATHERINE SMART: Yes. The Government has given a considerably increased grant of discretionary housing payment, and then said we can top it up if we want. Well we’re certainly going to top it up, and then we will see how that goes. However, the payment has been .. we’ve had discretionary housing payments for a bit, partly to deal with the previous Government changes to the housing benefit rules, which was to say that people in (the) private rented sector can only be paid what they call the local housing allowance, which is worked out on an average which is much wider than the city. It includes Haverhill and Littleport, and a whole big area. So of course as everybody knows, rents in the city are very very high, but the local housing allowance, because it’s worked out on this broad market rental area, is much lower. And we’ve been using the discretionary housing payment to top up people’s rents. Now that was the previous government’s housing reforms. So we’re going to have to work out and see what money we need to help people that it’s appropriate to help. We’ve got to remember that yes, there are 800 people affected , 800 families affected in the city. Actually they’re not all City Council tenants. Some are social rented in housing associations.
CHRIS MANN: We need to move on to another subject. It’s been a long point so far Catherine, so can I ask you to come to it please.
CATHERINE SMART: Yes. We’ve also got 600 or so people who are in overcrowded positions, and where they don’t really need that room, then really we do want them to move, to downsize, so that people who are in overcrowded positions can have places to move in.
CHRIS MANN: The most vulnerable people in this situation are of course the homeless completely, those who don’t have homes, and Sue Birtles, you’re concerned about a rise in that potentially?
SUE BIRTLES: Oh well we know there’s a rise in homelessness already in Cambridge. Shelter reported a 16% rise in homelessness in Cambridge in 2012 from 2011. I’d just like to answer a couple of points that Catherine made, if that’s possible. She’s correct that the local housing allowance was initially set by Labour. That was at 50% of the average median rent in the locality. And the current government have reduced it to 30%, which is a major drop. And so therefore she’s correct that there are calls on the discretionary housing fund for that in addition to the bedroom tax reductions. And we estimate £500,000 will be needed from the fund. And it’s currently at £315,000.
CHRIS MANN: We need to move to the end of the debate. A quick response from you Catherine?
CATHERINE SMART: It is the averaging out of the rents over a broad area that is a major major problem for people in private rented. The spare room supplement, which is the proper name for what’s been called the bedroom tax, the spare room supplement already has applied to private rented for years, about ten, twelve years. It’s now been brought in for social rented. And there is a transitional period which we really do need to make sure that anybody where they really do need the room does apply to be considered for the discretionary housing payment. And I really would like to urge your readers, sorry listeners, urge your listeners.
CHRIS MANN: They can read us online.
CATHERINE SMART: If you’re in that position, please apply.
CHRIS MANN: Catherine, thank you so much for joining us. And Sue too. That’s Councillor Catherine Smart from the Liberal Democrats, the Executive Council Member for Housing on Cambridge City Council. And also Councillor Sue Birtles from the Labour Party. Thank you ladies.