Tuesday, 27 November 2012

Haringey at the end of the welfare state

You may have seen the Guardian’s two-pager on poverty and homelessness on 19 Nov. The New Economics Foundation’s (NEF) report ; Everyday Austerity; life at the end of the welfare state looks at the impact of the ConDems’ myriad benefit cuts in Haringey – and Birmingham. It details the local effects of cuts in tax credits, housing benefits, benefits for disabled people – and the horrendous prospect of more to come, with £28 billion to be stripped out of the national welfare budget by 2017. Haringey Citizen’sAdvice Bureau has estimated that the ‘benefits cap’ of £500 per week being introduced by the ConDems in April 2013 will hit around 1100 families in the borough, with 600 of them losing over £100 a week.

There are now at least four food banks in Haringey, serving those hit by cuts and increasingly by the new sanctions regime which, since October, allows job centres to deny people benefits for up to three years if they offend against the very rigid jobseeker rules.

The NEF report reveals:-
      Drastic effects of the limits on housing benefit/local housing allowance which were introduced in January this year, placing 6900 Haringey homes that were affordable for people claiming these benefits now out of their reach. Up to 1100 families are expected to become homeless as a result –plus over 800 single people who are ineligible for local authority rehousing and are already cramming into church-run night shelters.
      A mounting personal debt crisis, with three and a half times as many applications for ‘crisis loans’ in 2009/10 compared to 2005/6. (The Social Fund which provided “crisis loans” will close and the responsibility for making them devolved to local councils in April 2013 – it’s not yet clear what Haringey will do about this).
      A huge overload for the Citizen’s Advice Bureau, which now sees queues from dawn onwards of people needing debt advice, help with appeals against benefit cuts and withdrawal of benefits due to sanctions and the much-criticised ATOS medical tests. (These tests have re-classified many disabled people – often inappropriately- as ‘fit for work’ in the worst job market for decades).

All this comes as Paul Nicholson, of Taxpayers against Poverty (TAP), has begun a campaign against cuts in Council Tax Benefit (see earlier post on this blog and the Haringey Independent). From April 2013, central government money for this benefit will be reduced, and councils will have to either source more of its cost themselves, or devise their own local schemes at lower rates. Haringey’s consultation about this ended on November 19th, with TAP and many others arguing that it is both unjust and unrealistic to expect people already facing benefit cuts, to pay 20% of their council tax when previously all of it had been paid for them.  Whilst rich councils like Westminster can afford to fill the gap and maintain CTB levels, Haringey cannot. Its main solution must be to lobby central government against the change with other similarly affected councils.

Likewise London-wide is needed to secure more affordable housing and challenge Tory policies. Mayor Johnson recently announced that he would no longer fund any new social-rented housing. He said the 50,000 target for new ‘affordable’ homes over the next four years would mean rents at between 60 and 80% of the market rate – well above the levels that housing benefit will now pay.  Unless Haringey acts with other councils to demand the reinstatement and increase of genuine ‘affordable homes’ targets, and to demand the reintroduction of rent control, low waged and disabled people will basically be driven out of London.

The failure of other boroughs to provide sufficient low cost housing also impacts on Haringey. Families hit by the housing benefits cuts are moving to Haringey to escape high rents closer to the centre. Other boroughs are also renting private landlords' here for 'their' homeless - between June and September 2012, 258 homeless households were housed by other boroughs in Haringey, amongst them 27 'vulnerable' needing social work support, whilst Haringey council had to place 105 of its own homeless applicants out of the borough. With other London boroughs, by last month it was looking for homeless accommodation outside of London.     

But on affordable homes, Haringey’s own policies need a re-think.  The new “Plan for Tottenham” with its promise to increase the proportion of owner-occupied housing in Tottenham and restrict conversion of existing buildings to bedsits (“HMOs” or “houses in multiple occupation”) makes one wonder where more badly needed low-cost housing is going to come from.

We need some Green Councillors to stand up for the low-paid, disabled and unemployed people of Tottenham, to secure adequate housing for them, more jobs and a London living wage level.

Written by Anne Gray

Saturday, 3 November 2012

Is co-operative energy the solution to climate change?

With climate change increasingly having a disastrous global impact, growing numbers of local communities are responding by launching their own renewable energy co-operatives in an effort to slash the UK's greenhouse gas emissions.

In fact green energy co-ops are now one of the fastest growing parts of the UK co-operative sector having grown by 24% in the past four years.

"The first co-operatively-owned wind farm opened in Cumbria in 1997," explains Rebecca Willis, co-author of a report into co-operative renewable energy published earlier this year.

"Since then, over 7,000 individual investors have ploughed over £16 million into community-owned wind turbines and other renewable technologies resulting in that there are now over 40 co-operatively-run renewable energy projects across the UK."

Typical of the motivation that lies behind this behind this surge in the numbers of renewable energy co-ops is that demonstrated by Mark Wells, a director of the newly-launched Sheffield Renewables co-op: "When we bring future generations to mind, ignoring the problem of climate change is not an option. So even though climate change is a very big problem, we want to do our bit, and so we chose to work as a community to build a renewable energy scheme."

The co-op aims to build a hydro-electric generator on the river Don which will be the largest community-owned hydro scheme in England providing enough electricity to power 80 homes.
The project is being funded by a share offer which aims to raise £200k and which will pay individual investors up to 3% interest.

"Investing in Sheffield Renewables is about much more than the financial return," cautions Wells. "It's about working together to bring carbon-free local energy to the city with profits going back into more green initiatives. Plus once people become involved with the project they're more likely to think about climate change and start to reduce their own carbon footprint."

Simon Gilhooly who helped launch the Green Energy Nayland project in Suffolk last year agrees that renewable energy projects are a great way to get the issue of climate change onto the agenda: "We've installed a photo-voltaic system onto the roof of local primary school and this has really helped raise awareness of climate change within the school and the wider community."
In the first year of their operation Gilhooly estimates that the school's solar panels has saved around £1,000 in energy bills. The scheme has also generated an income of over £4,000 through the government's feed in tariff resulting in that members who bought shares in the scheme are being paid a healthy level of interest on their investment.

All of the UK's renewable energy co-ops have been funded through share issues that target individual ethically-minded investors.

To help match up would-be investors with renewable energy projects a new website Microgenius has been launched as its founder Emily Mackay explains: "Microgenius is designed to simplify the process for both new renewable energy projects and investors. It has been specially developed to manage the administration of fundraising and to make it possible to reach a much wider range of people with the share offer."

Another source of financial support for new co-ops is from the Co-operative Group. "We have earmarked £1 million to support the establishment of new renewable energy co-operatives through our Co-operative Enterprise Hub," says Paul Monaghan, head of social goals and sustainability at the Co-operative Group. "This provides free business support for new and existing co-operatives."

So what are the key benefits of launching a renewable energy project as a co-op?

"One of the main advantages of co-operative structures is the strong message that the project is done by and for the community and is not imposed from the outside," answers Willis.

This is exactly what the Valley Wind co-op in West Yorkshire has found whilst planning its wind farm in the Colne Valley.

"So far we've had a pretty positive response from the community to our plans," says Chayley Collis, spokesperson for Valley Wind.

"A big part of this is because we're a co-operative and so people feel that the wind farm is going to benefit the community and that it is something that they will be able to invest in."
With opposition to wind farms growing around the country, the local paper in nearby Huddersfield ran a poll about the planned windfarm.

"Over 70% of respondents were in favour which is a fantastic vote for co-operative windfarms," says Collis.

However despite the passion and dedication of the renewable energy co-op community, the sector contributes only a minute amount of energy to the National Grid and scaling up their numbers remains an uphill task.

"If the government put the right policies in place then renewable energy co-op schemes could generate electricity equivalent to three conventional power stations," says Willis.

"Currently though with its jungle of red-tape the market is designed to favour the established large-scale developments which have specialist teams to tackle the mountain of bureaucracy involved in bringing a scheme to market."

One way that co-ops have been able to bypass this bureaucratic-nightmare is to team up with existing windfarm developers.

In Scotland four community co-ops have been launched which now have a small stake in major windfarms that have been built by Falk Renewables, one of Europe's leading renewable energy companies.

"Community groups receive a pro rata per centage of energy production from the windfarm," explains Paul Phare from Energy4All which works to develop renewable energy co-ops.

"It's an opportunity to engage everyone within the community, whether it be through a new playground paid for by the windfarm developer or as individuals who can personally benefit from investing in the wind farm scheme."

One energy co-op which is aiming for the big time is Co-operative Energy, part of the Co-op Group which launched in 2010.

"We aspire to being as big in energy as we are in banking," says Ben Reid from Co-op Energy.
"Most people feel completely disengaged about energy and mistrust their energy supplier. We aim to treat our customers fairly which is the hallmark of the co-operative brand and as with all co-operatives, members would be offered a share of profits," says Reid.

"If the original Rochdale Pioneers were starting up in business in 2011," Reid adds, "then I'm convinced that it's the energy market they would choose."

Written by Simon Birch first published at The Guardian

Thursday, 1 November 2012

Haringey Council Tax Benefit Reductions to Cause Increase in Poverty

A local activist writes an open letter to Haringey council opposing their proposed reductions to Council Tax Benefit:

I am a resident of Tottenham, living at 93 Campbell Road, N17 0BF; I pay the full rate of Council Tax (CT) for this property. I am responding to the Haringey Council's consultation about the abolition of the national council tax benefit (CTB), and about Haringey’s proposals to replace it with their local scheme.

I write to oppose your proposals on the grounds that the 25,560 households, who now pay no council tax will have to pay 20%, or around £300pa, from April 2013.

It is irrational on three grounds;

•benefits are paid by the Department of Work and Pensions to our poorest fellow citizens to provide the necessities of life; they are already inadequate in work and out of work and the benefit claimants' health and well being will put at risk, as will their children's education, by taxing those benefit incomes. 

 •there are so many cuts to benefits being made by the Department of Work and Pensions to the already inadequate benefit incomes that the risks of ill-health mentioned in (1) are multiplied.

•the stress of enforcement in families who cannot pay places expensive demands on the mental and physical health services and the schools

 •no account has been taken of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation minimum income standards which underline the inadequacy of the benefits before they are taxed.

•the increasing number of calls on the three food banks in the Borough are further evidence that benefit claimants will not be able to pay the council tax

Haringey is also abolishing the CTB for an unspecified number of people whose level of savings is currently over £10,000 by cutting the level of entitlement from £16,000. The council has not provided enough information to enable anyone to make a decision about whether this policy is rational or not; this is not a valid consultation.

The council says it is consulting all residents; how is the council ensuring that commitment is being kept?

In 1989 the Thatcher government added an amount to unemployment benefit to help them pay the poll tax; there is no sign of that in Haringey today.

Haringey has not carried out an assessment of the cumulative impact of the measures taken by the DWP to cut the benefits of 25,560 Haringey residents they now propose to tax; the measures impacting on the income of benefit claimants are;

1. The rate of increase of already inadequate benefits has been reduced by the move of uprating from RPI to CPI in April 2011, while prices of food and fuel escalate,

2. Housing benefit caps,

3. Bedroom tax,

4. £500 cap on all benefits.

5. Nationally sanctions now stop or reduce benefit payments for between 2 weeks and six months. 508,000 benefit sanctions were handed out in 2011, a rise from the 139,000 imposed in 2009. Many sanctions have been applied in the borough of Haringey.

6. The social fund has been abolished.

The local authorities will charge inevitable defaulters around £70 for a liability order from the magistrate’s courts, on top of the CT arrears, they and the advice sector, already overwhelmed will be swamped. The bailiffs charge defaulters up to £400 more.

Written by Rev Paul Nicolson, a local non party political aligned Haringey activist.