From ongoing conversations with Bristol City Council and hundreds of constituents, I have compiled a list of concerns about how the COVID-19 crisis will affect local government and housing in Bristol. I have included them in the letter below to the Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government, to push for improvements to support mechanisms and other policies.
The Rt Hon Robert Jenrick MP
Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government
Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government
2 Marsham Street
1 April 2020
Dear Secretary of State,
I am writing to you with several urgent matters facing my constituents during this time of crisis.
I understand the immense pressure on all levels of government, local and national during this time. Thank you for the work that your department is doing to issue funding and guidance to local authorities, including Bristol City Council, and to support those with housing issues. However, there are still some significant gaps in the support available, leaving many people fearful for the future.
I am in constant contact with Bristol City Council and hundreds of people across Bristol West. The below are the issues which are on my radar at the moment. I would be grateful if you could please refer to each request in your response.
a. Renters and landlords
Background: People who are renting their homes are really struggling. There have been some allowances for people protecting them for a short time from eviction notices and corresponding support for the landlords with their buy-to-let mortgages, but this is not sufficient for meeting current need. People are really fearful of not being able to pay, getting into arrears and the risk of eviction at the end of the three-month period. This includes:
- People employed on zero hours contracts and agency workers who are uncertain about what income support they are entitled to;
- students on low incomes who usually work part-time but have been laid off and are not entitled to any of the income support schemes;
- self-employed people who don’t have cash reserves;
- people who do a mix of self-employed and salaried work who are falling between the two schemes;
- self-employed people who haven’t been self-employed for long.
Some people who rent via a letting agency are finding that the agency is demanding rent despite the guidance issued. They are fearful of being evicted and struggling to find the rent.
Small-scale landlords are also really worried, some of whom have their sole or main income from the rent on one or two properties. This includes older people.
Request: Will the government provide a comprehensive package of financial support, via local authorities, to support tenants and small landlords in extreme financial hardship?
b. People due to move home
Background: People mid-way through buying/selling home or moving to a new rented home are also facing financial problems. People are telling me that they are trying to negotiate with the other parties and with mortgage lenders but that this is difficult in many cases.
Request: Will the government issue guidance to mortgage providers, letting agents and others involved in housing, describing exactly what the responsibilities are for each and what support is offered to them from government?
Background: In Bristol we have a high number of people arriving from other towns and cities in the region, which puts extra strain on our resources. Moreover, Council budgets have been cut in recent years. Nonetheless, Bristol City Council is helping everyone who is homeless, particularly those who were living on the streets. Bristol urgently needs reassurance that the government will provide support for the additional costs these efforts will incur.
Specifically, Bristol City Council has almost exhausted all available accommodation but has more than 150 referrals of homeless people needing accommodation. These additional costs of homeless accommodation will need to be considered when deciding future local authority funding.
Request: Can you guarantee support to local authorities in their efforts to ensure nobody is homeless at this time?
d. Building new homes
Background: We suffer a significant shortage of housing of all categories in Bristol and we’ve seen a very positive increase in the number of homes being built in Bristol over the last couple of years. However, under the new COVID-19 rules, many construction sites have shut down because they cannot operate under social distancing and safe practice for preventing the spread of the virus. Getting them building again is a priority as soon as they are safe to do so. Some construction sites remain open but there are concerns about how long they can continue to do this safely.
Request: Will you publish a clear plan setting out which construction companies can continue to operate, and as soon as is practicable, details of how and when construction companies can resume work safely?
2. Local government
a. Hardship Fund
Background: The Government has provided £5 million to Bristol City Council in order to alleviate hardship through additional reductions in council tax liabilities, of up to £150 per annum, per household for working age people accessing the Council Tax Relief (CTR) scheme. There is significant potential for the CTR scheme to exceed current budgeted expenditure for this year. Based on a 15% increase in caseload, the total cost would exceed the funds made available by £800,000.
Additionally, the government steer to give a further £150 discount to households of working age people already on Local Council Tax Reduction Scheme will not come soon enough to support those at highest risk of destitution. In practice, this will give vulnerable people just £12.50 discount a month from April if the discount is given over the full year. Given the urgency of the situation, this approach is not sustainable.
Request: Will the council be able to receive additional contributions to the Hardship Fund from central government if needed?
a. Emergency Fund
Background: The Council has been allocated £13 million from the Emergency Response Fund, allocated from the £1.6 billion provided to local government to address pressures across all services. From initial the assessment by Bristol City Council, it is likely that this figure will be insufficient to meet the wide range of service pressures facing the council in the coming period.
Request: Will the council be able to receive additional contributions to the Emergency Fund from central government if needed?
c. Procurement guidance on supplier relief provided by the local authority
Background: The Government’s Procurement Policy Note on supplier relief is being put into practice by Bristol City Council. Measures that local authorities are being asked to consider include payment in advance, effectively decoupling payment from service delivery. Bristol City Council is also receiving additional requests for financial support from a range of suppliers.
Request: This guidance, along with requests for additional supplier financial support, may increase financial pressures on local authorities. Will the department continue to keep this guidance under review?
d. Free Schools Meals
Background: Bristol City Council welcomes the free school meal provision from the government. There are a lot of families in Bristol who are registering for the scheme, many of whom were not previously registered, in some cases due to language and access barriers. These people are trying to register now as they have lost their main family income. It has come to our attention that the vouchers provided can be spent in a list of ‘major retailers’ but constituents are concerned about whether or not they can be spent in the low-cost supermarkets where they live.
I am very aware that some families will really struggle during the holidays without this provision as other providers such as holiday clubs are not open at this time.
- Can you please confirm that these vouchers can be used in Co-op, Aldi, Lidl, Iceland, and other local shops?
- Can a direct food offer be provided?
- What is the turnaround time for shops to receive the funds from the vouchers?
- What support from the government will there be for local councils to fund FSM vouchers during this time?
e. Food provision through charities
Background: The charity sector is nearly entirely reliant on food supplied through FareShare South West. This is not currently receiving government funding or other support. The demand of the economically vulnerable is growing and demand on FareShare is growing. This is unlikely to be sustainable for more than a couple of months. They are also concerned about people who don’t have kitchen equipment.
Furthermore, lots of skilled workers in the food industry have been furloughed. We need to continue providing the individuals with income security, however there is also a great need for skilled workers to support the industry during this time and in the long-term.
Request: What support can you give FareShare South West, the main food provider to the charity sector in the South West during this time?
f. Bus operator viability
Background: Whilst out of your direct remit, it is important to note that the bus services in Bristol are at risk of collapse without emergency rescue funding and this will affect people working in local government. A new reduced timetable for First Bus services came into operation this week, which represents around 50% capacity compared to normal. This will be further reduced next week due to very low demand. It is vital that these bus services are sustained in coming weeks in order to transport key workers and others who have to travel to work.
Request: Can you raise this problem of sustainable bus services with your colleagues in the Department of Transport?
I appreciate that this is a long list of requests and I hope you can accept them in the spirit in which they are intended – not as criticisms of the substantial support already offered by national government but as an attempt to highlight the gaps which are emerging and offer solutions.
Please let me know if you’d like me to discuss any of this further or if there is anything I can do to help ensure that these gaps are filled.
Thangam Debbonaire, MP for Bristol West