'Millions' owed to Scottish councils in housing arrears

Housing association homes
Image caption The new rules calculate housing benefit based on occupancy

Scottish councils believe they are owed more than £3m in rent arrears brought about by recent changes to housing benefit, BBC Scotland has learned.

Edinburgh City Council alone blames the withdrawal of the spare room subsidy, known by opponents as the bedroom tax, for £1.3m of arrears.

It is estimated about 80,000 tenants across Scotland lost some of their housing benefit in April.

The reductions came because they were deemed to have a spare bedroom.

However, some councils believe many of the people who have lost money may not have applied for help or may even be actively refusing to do so.

The picture varies widely from council to council.

North Lanarkshire Council - Scotland's largest council landlord - recently told BBC Scotland it had £675,000 of arrears which may be the result of the benefit changes.

Information collated by BBC Scotland suggests many other urban councils in west central Scotland have also seen a comparable rise in arrears. Neighbouring South Lanarkshire estimates its figure is £425,000.

Amongst the other councils with substantial arrears which they believe are the result of the benefit changes are Renfrewshire (£322,000), East Ayrshire (£232,000), North Ayrshire (£112,000) and West Dunbartonshire (£67,000).

Glasgow and Inverclyde Councils are no longer landlords.

However, several local authorities in other parts of Scotland could not say how much they were owed specifically because of the benefit changes or said it was a relatively small amount.

For instance Perth and Kinross believes it is only owed £12,000 from tenants as a result of the withdrawal of the spare room subsidy. Meanwhile Moray's total is just £5,600 and Shetland says it has no bedroom tax arrears at all as everyone affected received help.

Some councils believe some tenants with arrears due to the changes have not applied for the special discretionary help which is available or may even be refusing to pay as a protest.

The convener of the Scottish Parliament's Welfare Reform Committee convener Michael McMahon said: "This research seems to confirm that of our own, published earlier this month: Rent arrears are a real problem for tenants and social landlords alike."

"Whilst the Scottish government's commitment to keeping Discretionary Housing Payments funds in 2014/15 are welcome, we have had concerns for a while that uptake by tenants is an issue."

Scottish Conservative welfare spokesman Alex Johnstone MSP said: "The UK government has made available more than £30m to assist vulnerable people with the changes to housing benefit.

"It is vital that all councils in Scotland make every effort possible to ensure tenants in their area are fully informed of the financial help available.

"However, there appears to be a core number of people who are determined to get themselves into arrears to make a political point."

At the weekend, it emerged that South Ayrshire Council had sent letters to about 40 people with arrears warning them the council would take action against them or even re-possess their home. Overall it has £92,000 worth of bedroom tax arrears.

However, BBC Scotland understands these letters were all sent to people who had refused to engage with the council about their arrears or who had even wilfully refused to apply for help.

South Ayrshire Council said it would not evict a tenant simply because of arrears due to the changes as long as the tenant was working with the council to try to find a solution.

A spokesman said: "We pro-actively contacted 1,137 tenants who are affected by under-occupancy reduction in housing benefit.

"We have worked to assist our tenants in applying for Discretionary Housing Payments if they are in financial hardship.

"There may be some tenants who have failed to make contact or engage with the council, who will not have applied for discretionary housing payments and we would encourage them to contact us if this is the case."

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