Rugby tenants urged to act now ahead of benefit changes

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There is a concerning lack of awareness about the forthcoming changes to welfare benefits amongst people in the borough who will be affected by them, according to Rugby Borough Council.

This is a key finding of a group of councillors at Rugby Borough Council who have been looking at the potential impact of the welfare reforms on council tenants.

They found evidence from a range of sources that many people are confused about the changes and some are even unaware that the reforms will affect them.

Some of the major changes – such as reductions in benefit for those ‘under-occupying’ social housing and an overall cap on benefits – come into affect on Monday next week (April 1).

Later in the year existing means-tested benefits for people of working age will begin to be replaced by a single universal credit payment which will be paid monthly in arrears and – unlike existing housing benefit – directly to tenants.

The overview and scrutiny review group, which included borough councillors from all parties and a co-opted representative from the Tenant Representative Panel, looked in detail at the welfare reforms and what steps the council might need to take to protect its housing income and prevent tenants from falling into rent arrears. The review group’s recommendations were accepted in full by the council’s cabinet in March.

During the review task group members surveyed affected tenants, held focus groups at local children’s centres, and heard from experts from voluntary and public sector organisations about the likely impact of the reforms and the type of support that could be offered to tenants.

They also considered research by council officers which found that:

*During 2011/12 the council collected more than 99 per cent of its rental income, amounting to £13.9 million and approximately 60 per cent of this was received directly through housing benefit

*28 households in Rugby will be affected by the overall benefits cap from April 2013, four of whom are council tenants

*More than 420 council tenant households in Rugby will be affected by the under-occupancy rules from April 2013. Benefits reductions range from £6 to just under £30 per week and as a result around £268,000 per year of housing income will no longer be met by benefits

*Opportunities for the council to offer smaller accommodation are limited by the number of vacancies and the profile of available properties.

The council employs two Welfare Reform Officers whose role it is to help tenants adjust to the reforms. Since being in post last autumn, they have visited every tenant affected by under-occupation and given them individual advice based on their circumstances.

Cllr Jerry Roodhouse, who chaired the task group, said: “The government’s welfare reforms are already beginning to take effect in the borough and our role as a task group was to take a practical look at what the impact might be and how the risks to the council’s housing income could be minimised. It is important both for our tenants and for the council that key messages reach the people who will be affected and the right support is put in place to help them manage the changes and meet their rent payments. There is a lot of good work underway and I hope that our review report will help ensure that the right steps are taken to address the challenges ahead.”

Cllr Leigh Hunt, the Council’s Sustainable Inclusive Communities Portfolio Holder, said: “The council and its partners in the Local Strategic Partnership are gearing up for one of the biggest ever shake-ups to welfare benefits. The council has appointed dedicated welfare reform housing officers and they have visited council tenants who we think will be directly affected by the new ‘size criteria’ to make sure they get the advice and support they need to prevent them from falling into rent arrears. We have also begun a communications campaign, including local radio and newspapers advertisements, and are already starting to receive enquiries as a result.

“The task group’s report identifies a number of priorities that we need to address with our partners, and provides some valuable insights into what support will be needed for tenants and how that could best be delivered. I am grateful to the task group for their work on this important issue.”

The task group review focused mainly on the impact on council tenants but highlighted the wider implications of the welfare reforms for borough residents and for the council. The report calls for a strategic group of elected members from all parties to work with officers to monitor the impact of the reforms on the council and the local community and this new group will begin work in the coming weeks.

Residents can find out more at www.rugby.gov.uk/welfarereform, or to find out more about their benefits by calling (01788) 533433.