Households fear losing homes in welfare reforms

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HUNDREDS of householders in one of the North of England’s most desirable cities have sought expert advice amid fears that the Government’s controversial welfare reforms will see them lose their homes.

Senior politicians in York have warned that the massive disparities between annual wages and property prices in the city will be amplified even further as the overhaul of benefits payments kicks in.

While Ministers have faced wide-ranging criticism nationally over the impact the reforms are having on the unemployed and low income households, the concerns in York are even more acute.

The city is heavily reliant on the tourism sector which is often poorly paid, while house prices and rents remain among the highest in the Yorkshire region.

Latest figures have revealed that York Council has been contacted on 3,350 occasions during the last financial year by people asking advice from the local authority’s housing options team - a 76 per cent increase on the previous 12 months.

The council’s cabinet member for health, housing and adult social services, Coun Tracey Simpson-Laing, said: “A lot of people are extremely concerned about how the welfare reforms will impact on them, especially in York where we have a very particular set of circumstances.

“We have seen a massive increase in the number of inquiries, but there needs to be an even greater awareness. There is a very real fear that hundreds of people in York who are on low incomes or are unemployed could be faced with losing their homes.

“While the council is here to help in any way that we can, our resources are only limited, especially at a time we are having to look at our budgets very closely.”

Official statistics have shown that the average household income needed to secure a privately-rented two-bedroom home in York is £34,696 a year, while the average annual income in the city is just £19,500.

A report by the homeless charity, Shelter, revealed that it costs £648 a month to privately rent a two-bedroom home in York, while an unemployed person will receive just £511 a month in local housing allowances for that property.

Coun Simpson-Laing admitted that the changing face of York’s economy has also compounded the housing crisis in the city.

The relatively well-paid jobs in traditional industries such as confectionary and manufacturing have ebbed away, while the tourism sector now helps underpin the city’s economy.

The city attracts more than 7.1 million visitors every year, who spend in excess of £443m – equating to seven per cent of the region’s overall tourism industry.

The Yorkshire Post revealed in July last year that experts had predicted a rising tide of homelessness could engulf Yorkshire’s sought-after “Golden Triangle” as welfare cuts start to bite while affordable accommodation remains critically low.

The area between Leeds, Harrogate and York, which has long contained some of the most exclusive properties in the North, is now proving unaffordable for a soaring number of residents unable to find a home in the shadow of £1m-plus properties.

Local authorities admitted that they will struggle to contain the problem, with Harrogate Borough Council embarking on a major overhaul of its housing needs team. York Council – where a 57 per cent increase in homelessness was recorded in 2011 while two-thirds of people on housing benefit were faced with being priced out of the private rental sector – has treated the problem “as an issue of huge importance”.

However, the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) maintained the Government is providing councils with £190m to help people during housing benefit reforms.

Ministers have stressed that urgent steps are needed to manage housing benefit expenditure, which nearly doubled in cash terms between 2000 and 2010, reaching £21 billion. Housing benefit would cost £25 billion by 2014-15 if the system is not reformed, according to the DWP.

The spokesman added: “There is absolutely no reason for people to be moved far away from their communities due to our welfare reform – after changes to housing benefit around a third of private rented properties are still affordable to benefit claimants.

“Universal credit and reform to housing benefit are removing clear barriers that stop people getting into work and are returning fairness the benefits system.”