Is York’s aspiration to be a poverty-free city empty rhetoric?

17 Nov 2014 @ 1.11 pm
| Opinion, Politics

Outreach worker Richard Bridge says a system which leaves someone with £17 a week to live on cannot be right or fair

‘York’s poorest are bearing the heaviest burden of austerity…’ Photograph: Richard McDougall

The recent Advice York report Pushed into Poverty: the real cost of Council Tax Support has reignited the debate on the fairness of council priorities in recent and forthcoming years.

Back in September 2012, the York Fairness Commission published their report containing findings and recommendations for the future.

Within its foreword was a statement most people will have no argument with:

“York should have no tolerance of poverty … there is no place for such social devastation in this beautiful, vibrant and wealthy city”

Less than a year on, the cabinet of City of York Council agreed a vision for a poverty-free York.

In between times the Government, amongst a plethora of other brutal cuts to welfare, had delivered an ingenious but deceitful piece of legislation which localised Council Tax Benefit but simultaneously cut the grant for working age adults by more than 20 per cent.

In doing so, they placed the onus on local authorities to construct a fair scheme with reduced funds, which has been further reduced via cuts to the Revenue Support Grant.

If a council is serious about a poverty-free strategy, it needs to carefully scrutinise the impact of placing money into some of its financial inclusion initiatives against directly helping its residents through local welfare.

Unsurprisingly, the council are keen to align themselves as closely to York’s Joseph Rowntree Foundation on issues such as the Living Wage (which York has been at the forefront of), but there is a danger that in doing so JRF provide a smokescreen for some of York’s more inequitable policies.

So what happened in York?

In York, the shortfall to funding for 2013/2014 was projected as £1.3 million. The city was given freedom to design its own scheme and make other changes to some council tax exemptions.

They managed to offset this shortfall by £660,000 for the first year.

Prior to the November 2012 council cabinet meeting, I emailed each cabinet member and asked them to consider fully abolishing the council tax exemption on landlord’s vacant properties.

I estimated this could raise an additional £530,000 per annum which could be used to mitigate the impact on any council tax support scheme.

Unfortunately, my request was ignored apart from council leader James Alexander suggesting going above the 50 per cent discount on landlord’ short-term voids would lead to non-payment and an increase in the cost of enforcement.

In the summer of 2013, I raised the topic again at my local Labour branch and subsequently at the party’s general meeting.

A motion was passed that “current council tax exemptions for landlords who have empty properties should be reviewed”. The cabinet subsequently removed the 50% discount from April 2014.

What does the York scheme look like?

It appears that from the get-go, York’s formal consultation was based on one highly regressive council tax support scheme, in which there would be an across-the-board cut of 30%, meaning the hardest up have to pay more than £5 a week.

One claimant in a report produced by Child Poverty Action Group put his finger on the injustice:

“I don’t understand how they work it out ’cos benefits are supposed to be the minimum you can live on and now they’ve said this is compulsory. How can they do that?” (John, Camden)

No research in York was conducted with community and voluntary groups.

Other options – such as prioritising vulnerable groups, making higher council tax bands ineligible for support or the introduction of a council tax hardship fund – were simply not considered.

Reviewing the data from the New Policy Institute, there are only two local authorities in the country (out of 326), which have more regressive schemes than York.

And yet looking back at how the shortfall was offset by technical changes, it is arguable whether there was a need or justification to impose any cut. Especially considering the additional revenue from landlords in 2014 has not been passed to council tax support claimants.

Impact on individuals

The severe impact this policy has had on people is clear from the Advice York publication. Not only does it take money away from individuals, it takes money away from communities.

It pushes people into further debt due to the costs of enforcement and bailiff’s charges – as an example, a debt of £197 can quickly sky-rocket to £634.

And that is before someone then borrows the money from a payday lender to avoid the bailiff knocking on the door.

You get the picture … Surely that must be contrary to the aims of York’s Financial Inclusion Strategy or indeed their Child Poverty Strategy.

So what can be done?

It would be disingenuous not to acknowledge the crux of the issue remains a lack of funding at a national level and certainly restoring the 100 per cent central subsidy should be the primary aspiration.

If not, allowing a fully-fledged localisation of council tax should be permitted so that local authorities can also consider other ways of raising the money: for instance, means testing the single-person discount, levying a council tax or a charge on landlords’ properties exclusively let to students.

In reality, neither option seems politically palatable to any mainstream party.

That leaves a local solution as the only possible way forward.

The scheme can certainly be redesigned from 2016 (apparently it is too late for 2015) but in the meantime, the minimum should be to plough all the money generated from the exemptions into a hardship fund. That aspiration is achievable from April 2015.

Choices, choices, choices

Whilst cuts to local government funding are undoubtedly eye-watering and choices ever more difficult, those choices nevertheless need to be made.

Anyone attending the launch of the Advice York report would have seen a brave man explain how due to a car accident, he was now subsisting on £17 per week and described how he goes without meals and heating so his 10 year old son can eat at the weekend when he visits him.

Surely, it is not right in our society that we ask him to pay towards his council tax which if remitted would at least partially alleviate his hunger.

Finding solutions

As a member of the Labour Party, I am more than dismayed that this administration has implemented such a draconian scheme.

And yet I understand that addressing poverty is and never will be a vote-winner, especially when we are bombarded with poverty porn and media coverage that projects the falsity of “choosing a lifestyle on benefits“.

So we have a choice. We either resist that discourse or we succumb to it.

Those that succumb to it should however be honest enough to say so and not pretend there is a vision for a “poverty-free” York or that we can “Stamp Out Poverty”.

I therefore want to extend an invitation to anyone in York who feels the same way as me to find a way of working together.

Not only to express our abhorrence at the way the poorest are bearing the heaviest burden of austerity but to articulate and find solutions which can be presented to the policymakers within the city.

For example, Citizens Advice provide examples of best practice in CTS schemes as well as tips on what to consider when revising schemes.

To properly address this, I believe it requires a non-tribal and cross-political approach so everyone and anyone’s contribution and experiences is encouraged and valued.

If you are interested in changing York’s local welfare schemes, please call me 07854 007452, drop me an email or contact me via Twitter.