News from BHA

This area of the site contains all our meeting minutes (linked to below) and a full copy of the minutes of our first meeting to give you a sense of where we’ve come from. Meetings take place every other Tuesday, at 7pm, at Brent Mencap – check the calendar to find out when the next one is. Minutes should go up within a week of each meeting.

Report of the first meeting of Brent Housing Action

After an initial meeting on 19 March called by Brent Fightback, some 30 people met in a sunny room at Mencap, Willesden on Tuesday 9th April. After sharing information and experiences around the problems of and threats to housing in Brent, all present voted to launch Brent Housing Actiona Campaign for Housing and Benefits Justice.

Introductions to the meeting were from local tenants and residents, the Brent Law Centre, Brent Mencap, Brent Council’s lead member for Housing, the Counihan-Sanchez Housing Campaign, 476 Housing Coop, Brent Fightback, Brent Trades Council, the Somali Advice Centre, Red Pepper magazine, the Socialist Workers Party, TUSC, Unite Union Community members, Kilburn Unemployed Workers Group, teachers in the NUT, the Red Room theatre company and the Wembley Observer.

Sharing information:

The Law Centre

  • Have seen cuts to the scope of legal aid and the level of funding available to legal aid services locally
  • Have seen a reduction of almost 75% in the number of cases they are able to take on
  • Are part of a new advice consortium partnership in Brent including Mencap, the Citizens Advice Bureau and Brent Private Tenants Rights Group has been set up

The Law Centre has a history of mounting collective class action cases which has been limited in recent years by funding stipulations that allow only individual cases. It was generally felt that residents and community groups would need to form alliances to address the housing and benefits problems facing them collectively.

Brent Mencap

  • Fear cuts to supported tenants will lead to homelessness
  • Mencap is a member of the new Healthwatch consortium that  will replace Brent Link

Citizens Advice Bureau

  • Are seeing an average of 300 people a week, also on a reduced budget

The CAB has offered help in delivering training to a larger group of local volunteers, as have the Law Centre, Mencap and Unite Community. It is hoped that this training will allow for a bigger pool of people to be equipped in basic welfare and housing advice, able to sign post other residents to services, support groups and campaigns.

The Red Room

They are currently based at the Albert in Queens Park/South Kilburn and are seeking stories from people facing financial hardship. These interviews will be used to produce a theatre piece that will be performed across the borough, in street, community and council venues. The aim is to amplify the voices of ordinary people in hardship.

Brent Council

Janice Long, lead member for Housing, had provided a detailed breakdown of the numbers of people in Brent Housing Partnership accommodation that would be affected by “under-occupancy” benefit cuts, i.e the “Bedroom Tax”. This following figures, which were read out to the meeting,  do not include those occupying Housing Association property or those in private rented accommodation.  and other social tenants (Private Tenants had benefits cut for under-occupancy years ago):

  • In total there are 1,761 households who are classed as ‘under occupying’ (those who have one or more ‘spare’ bedrooms according to government guidelines) which are in receipt of Housing Benefit. However, in 1,127 of these households the benefit recipient is above the threshold of age 61 and therefore exempt from the changes.
  • This means that there are 634 properties affected by the under occupancy penalty .
  • This represents a total Housing Benefit  loss of £11,245 per week, or £584,740 a year, and averages at a loss for each household of  £17.74 each week, or £922.30 a year.

Brent Council’s current focus is on an exchange scheme supporting tenants to swap properties both within and outside of Brent; and older residents not subject to the cut will also be offered incentives to downsize. The Council are not currently focussing on evictions, although they are still under consideration in the future..

Planning

Immediate support for those affected

There are a range of template letters available for use by those threatened with housing benefit cuts or eviction.  We are now adding some of these to the website – please let us know if you have found any others. BHA will try and promote these letters in the community.

Other councils, such as Dundee, Islington, Brighton (although this was later bought into dispute) and Nottingham, have opposed the Bedroom Tax and have said they will not evict tenants affected by it. The group talked about the financial costs of evictions– sometimes as much as £1,500  – dealing with homelessness, and  the human cost of displacement and misery. The idea of campaigning directly for Brent Council to adopt a similar policy was discussed, and will be decided later.

The Counihan Sanchez campaign put forward an example of the recent  actions of Network Stadium to demonstrate another way in which the cuts – and their communication – will terrify even those who should be safe.  Isabel Counihan- Sanchez opened a letter addressed to her mother – who died on Friday 5th April – that was designed to look like a Final Demand letter, featuring statements in two red boxes that said:’ IMPORTANT NOTICE: YOUR BENEFITS ARE BEING CUT’ and ‘Your Weekly Housing Benefit Reduction Is £18.92’.

Isabel’s mum was 68 and would have been exempt from the cuts, but the letter only goes into this in the smaller text. People were appalled at this kind of generic, threatening letter being sent to people at all, let alone to those who are known to be exempt from the benefit changes. The Counihan Sanchez campaign are going to take action  in response to this, and Brent Housing Action will circulate details. The campaign also plans to organise representatives in each block on the South Kilburn estate and work with them to inform and support others. It was felt that Brent Housing Action could take a similar approach and organise local representatives in other areas.

We’ve now set up this site, and a Facebook group to share information. BHA will be supporting local filmmakers and other organisations in circulating information and stories about the impact of the benefits.

The next meeting of BHA is at 7pm, on Tuesday 23rd April, at Brent Mencap.

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