Labour Opposition Councillors sat in horror at the Kensington and Chelsea Council Cabinet meeting where the new Council Tax Support system was discussed. Previously the government has fully funded this benefit, but this has now changed under the ‘Localising Council Tax Benefit’ policy, and the Council will be in charge of distributing a fixed sum from the government that includes a 10% cut.
On paper the Council’s proposals for 2013-14 seem fair, as they are offering to fill the 10% funding gap from Council funds so that our neediest residents will not suffer.
However it became clear from the discussions at Cabinet on 10 January that this will only be for a fixed and temporary period of two years after which ‘we will be left with those who can bridge the gap’. Euphemisms flowed freely regarding ‘changes in population’ that will follow after a ‘two year overlap’.
Far from being generous therefore, the Council is attempting to mask the programme of effective social cleansing of Kensington and Chelsea that the Coalition government began with its welfare and benefit cuts and caps.
Most bizarrely, a deliberate decision has been made that those most affected will be the ‘working poor’.
Pensioners eligible for Council Tax Support will by law have to receive the same amount; this means the 10% cut will disproportionately hit other groups. In Kensington and Chelsea in the past 12 months alone we have seen 500 households hit by reductions in Local Housing Allowance seeking help with alternative accommodation, with a total of 1,600 households – and rising – in Temporary Accommodation. There are a further 854 households about to be penalised by an average of £18/wk by the Bedroom Tax (including many disabled people and foster carers), while the upcoming Universal Credit system will further confuse what is already an immensely complex system and make it uneconomic to chase non-payers.
Therefore it has been decided that after the two-year period the ‘working poor’ – those who work but whose earnings are not enough to pay Council Tax without help – will be hardest hit. The Council’s own report states: ‘This may result in relatively large cuts for working customers, reducing work incentives, which may be counter-productive to the Government’s welfare reform strategy.’
The cost to the Council of funding the gap is £957,000 – less than was squandered on two weeks of ‘Olympic celebration’ in Exhibition Road, and close to the £1m that the Cabinet Member for Finance called ‘chicken-feed’ in the context of supporting the loss-making Opera Holland Park.
The report also states that the eradication of discounts for empty and second homes will ‘offset’ this ‘relatively small’ sum, bringing additional revenue to cover the cuts.
Labour Opposition Leader Cllr Judith Blakeman said: ‘Only a few weeks ago the Cabinet Member for Housing and Property was categorically denying that residents will be forced out of the borough against their will and condemning Labour Councillors who said that they would have to go. I asked him to give a firm assurance on this matter, but I have yet to receive a reply. It is quite clear now that this was a hollow promise.”
Labour Opposition Deputy Leader and Finance Spokesperson Cllr Emma Dent Coad said: ‘In the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea there is no financial imperative to remove this support to our low income working families. The Cabinet reports states that £957,000 is ‘relatively small’ and that other changes to Council Tax will increase income and cover the shortfall. So there is no need to hit our hard-working poor families in ways that are likely to force them out of the borough. Masking these changes with euphemisms such as ‘changes in population’ imply more sinister intent.
‘With the removal of households hit by LHA cuts, rent rises, the advent of Universal Credit, increased costs of childcare, and proposed cuts to help on Council Tax, who will be left in the borough?
‘The question is, why implement any cuts at all in Council Tax Support? The Triborough proposal to build ‘middle class’ housing estates gives us a clue that the Council intends to encourage residence of middle and upper income households only; the workless and working poor are to be removed from the picture. This is nothing less than social cleansing, and is despicable and unworthy of the Royal Borough.’