Labour councillors today issued a stark warning to Westminster Council Leader, Cllr Philipa Roe, and Cabinet Member for Finance, Cllr Tim Mitchell, who this year are dipping into council reserves due to Conservative Government cuts and failure to tackle the problem of unaffordable rents in Westminster.
This year Westminster Council has seen a massive 46% cut in the Government money allocated to support residents unable to meet their rent due to the Government’s Welfare reforms.
Last year Westminster Council was allocated £4.8m in Discretionary Housing Payments (DHP), now the Council will receive only £2.6m. This follows years of Westminster Council underspending their DHP allocation and handing money to Government. As a result, Westminster Tories have had to raid council reserves for an extra £1.1m to meet the projected shortfall in DHP.
Alongside the heavily cut DHP budget, the council has agreed a new policy for awards:
• DHP awards will now only meet the full shortfall in rent in only ‘exceptional circumstances’ and will expect a reduction in expenditure on non-essential items;
• Income and savings typically outside of Housing Benefit calculations will be included;
• The council may decide a non-dependant should contribute more than the amount of the non-dependant deduction determined by Housing Benefit Regulations.
In advice to council leaders, officers have admitted that both LHA reforms and the benefit cap are affecting a large number of households in Westminster “primarily because rent levels in the private rented sector and for temporary accommodation are high”. The advice goes on to say that the reduction “presents a challenge to Westminster because of the number of households living in temporary accommodation who rely on receiving a DHP to make their rent affordable”.
Westminster’s Labour councillors are calling on the council to:
• commit to doing more to tackle high and unaffordable rents in Westminster;
• make explicit what is deemed “essential and non-essential expenditure”; and
• commit to using money from general council underspend in the current financial year to help meet any shortfall in DHP.
Reflecting on the council’s new DHP policy, Labour’s Housing Spokesperson Councillor Vincenzo Rampulla said:
“Over many years Westminster has not addressed the causes of DHP spending, the Government social security cuts they have championed, the lack of social and affordable housing and the spiralling costs of private sector rents, so now Cllr Tim Mitchell is having to dip into council reserves because the Tory Government has decided the council can somehow afford a swingeing cut in DHP allocations.”
“With such a slim margin of error in this year’s budget the council must fill in the obvious gaps in this policy. For instance, what will council leaders say is essential and non-essential for residents? Tory-led North West Leicestershire Council doesn’t allow the internet, school trips, haircuts or pet food if you’re applying for DHP; does Westminster City Council plan hurt some of our most vulnerable families by doing the same?”
“Labour wants Westminster to cut welfare need by tackling high rents through more affordable housing and greater innovation in working with the private rented sector, but the council cannot leave families destitute. The council must continue to make reserves available as a last resort and look to use funds from predicted council underspends to help mitigate the impact on some of our most vulnerable families.”
Conservative run North West Leicestershire have published a publicly available list of what they consider essential and non-essential expenditure to help those applying for DHP support: