Around two-thirds of social housing tenants in Shetland who have lost out as a result of the bedroom tax’s introduction this year are to be offered financial support.
Around 170 isles households faced making extra payments of up to £100 a month after the coalition government withdrew what it described as an “extra room subsidy” for those deemed to be living in a property with one or more spare bedrooms.
The total cost to Shetland tenants is estimated to be £102,000 a year. Last month the department for work and pensions (DWP) announced £48,000 in funding – on top of a prior £22,000 payment – for the SIC to alleviate the impact of the deeply unpopular policy.
Monday morning’s executive committee meeting saw councillors agree to relax the criteria for accessing “discretionary housing payments” in light of the new cash pledge. That means “approximately 70 per cent of affected claimants” will now be able to claim assistance.
But there remains serious concern about what happens beyond 2013/14. Head of finance James Gray’s report noted that the Westminster funding package was “for one year only so there is no guarantee that any similar money will be available in future years”.
Political leader Gary Robinson admitted: “My suspicion is that we get nothing next year from Westminster to deal with this issue.”
Councillor Allison Duncan said he was worried that would lead to an increase in people falling into rent arrears.
“If we don’t get any monies extra from the government in future years,” Mr Duncan said, “what would concern me is that we may have to be looking at eviction of the most vulnerable in society. That is one thing that I would strongly oppose.”
Mr Duncan had also wanted the council to fork out an extra £36,000 this year to fully alleviate the bedroom tax’s impact. But he lost out by five votes to four.
Moving against Mr Duncan’s motion, Mr Robinson said it would “really stick in my craw to spend Shetland’s money to fix what is a UK-wide problem”.
The islands authority was given assistance as it deemed to be one of the 25 “most rural” councils in the UK. But Mr Robinson noted Orkney and other areas had been awarded a cash package that “wholly eradicated” the effects of the bedroom tax.
“I do believe that we need to be in a position here where we’re able to say the bedroom tax has caused us a problem, and one which the [money] government put forward may not be sufficient to fix,” Mr Robinson said.
Councillor Alastair Cooper sided with Mr Robinson. He argued that, while there were those who “can hardly afford to pay their rent” each months, there were also tenants in a much better financial position: “We shouldn’t be firing money at folk that don’t need it,” Mr Cooper said.
Should there still be vulnerable people requiring help after the £70,000 is spent, Mr Robinson said he would expect a subsequent report looking at whether the SIC should take action.