With Benefits Street finished, the reality starts to bite

The fifth and final episode of Benefits Street aired on Monday this week.

Channel 4 executives will give themselves a pat on the back. The show has delivered their highest ratings in years.

Other channels joined in too. Channel 5 aired The Big Benefits Row, giving a timely boost to the career prospects of failed reality-show contestant Katie Hopkins and ex-Tory MP Edwina Currie.

Currie also recently gave a now infamous interview on BBC Radio Stoke in which she criticised foodbanks. “I get very, very troubled at the number of people who are using food banks who think that it’s fine to pay to feed their dog, their dog is in good nick and beautiful, but they never learn to cook, they never learn to manage and the moment they’ve got a bit of spare cash they’re off getting another tattoo,” she said.

For six weeks the size and shape of Britain’s social security system has been part of a national conversation.

But, after Benefits Street, life will go back to something like normal for the residents of James Turner Street.

A report released this week by the National Housing Federation (NHF) confirmed what that normality looks like.

Less than a year since it was introduced, two thirds of people affected by the bedroom tax are now in rent arrears.

We don’t know the actual number of people that is, as the NHF report only polled housing associations, who house a little under half of all those affected. But it is likely to be in the hundreds of thousands. We also don’t know how much money these people have spent on dog food and tattoos.

But we do know that one in seven of those polled, people in the most dire straits, has been served with an eviction risk letter.

We do know that 63% of those affected are disabled. We know the government’s discretionary housing payments will be nowhere near enough to protect them – with demand for it up by 237%.

We know that the numbers of available one-bedroom properties isn’t close to the number needed for the 180,000 who are under-occupying two-bedroom homes. Housing professionals say that even if they let all of their available properties to those who are under-occupying, it would still take years to rehouse everyone affected.

We know that low income households are now spending, on average, £2.10 a day on food.

We do know that foodbanks are now issuing ‘kettle boxes’ to clients who can’t afford the electricity needed to turn on the oven.

And we certainly know that for every foodbank user Edwina Currie describes, there are countless others with stories like this one.

Cellino chaos has Leeds fans fearing freaky Fridays

Image

Image – Steve W.

I wrote this for the excellent The72 about the Massimo Cellino saga which has engulfed Leeds United, and is still, at time of writing, yet to be sorted out. Read the original here.

It used to be midweek evenings that Leeds fans feared the most, having gone a full year between November 2011 and November 2012 without a win on a Tuesday or Wednesday night. But now they’ve fallen out of love with Fridays.

And it’s all Massimo Cellino’s fault.

For anyone who’s missed the unfolding spectacle at Elland Road over the last two weeks, or have developed a special sort of tinnitus for news related to Leeds United’s impending financial meltdown, here’s a summary.

Sacking

Leeds fans’ weekends  were first spoilt on Transfer Deadline Day, when, having apparently received a text from current chairman Salah Nooruddin congratulating him on the purchase of the club, Cellino casually dispensed with the services of Brian McDermott as manager. Well, to be accurate, his lawyer, Chris Farnell did. Over the phone.

Scores of pints will have been chugged in Leeds that Friday night to toast the departed McDermott. So imagine how much sore heads throbbed further still on Saturday, when it was revealed that since Cellino didn’t own Leeds United yet, he couldn’t really sack its employees. After much legal wrangling, the absent McDermott missed the club’s 5-1 pasting of Yorkshire ‘rivals’ Huddersfield, but returned to take training on Monday.

Then Farnell was sent packing himself, escorted off the premises by security. There were rumblings that Andrew Flowers, the chief executive of Enterprise Insurance, who it was assumed would be taking over Leeds as part of the Sport Capital consortium before Christmas, had joined forces with Mike Farnan, the ex-Manchester United employee who had fronted another bid to buy the club back in November. This super-consortium made it clear they wanted to complete their own takeover. So far, so confusing – so Leeds.

The majority of Leeds fans were pretty happy about this. Cellino has a spent conviction for fraud and is awaiting trial regarding alleged embezzlement in Italy, and has the happy track record of having employed 36 managers in 20 years as owner of Cagliari.

But current owners GFH Capital seem pretty keen on Cellino, so much so that he’d been given a tour of the training ground weeks before even agreeing a deal. This courtesy was almost extended to Gianluca Festa, the ex-Middlesbrough defender and Cellino associate, being given a seat in the dugout before the game against Ipswich. McDermott refused, which seemed to irk Cellino.

But as last week went on, the chances of Farnan and Flowers brokering a deal faded. Flowers pulled out, and has now issued a winding-up petition against the club.

So Friday came again, and with it more grim tidings. The club announced on their official website that, subject to Football League approval (which – incredibly, he is likely to get), the club was Cellino’s. For fans who gathered in their hundreds outside Elland Road a week previously against a Cellino takeover, this seemed like a hammer blow.

Changing mood

But, incredibly, it seems the mood in Leeds is shifting. Cellino gave an interview to the Sun on Sunday which seems to have stirred the Leeds faithful. ‘If I was running a Fiat 500 in Italy, now I have the chance to run a Ferrari,” he said. He also announced he would buy back Elland Road on his first day in charge of the club.

Some Cagliari fans have emerged on Twitter too to soothe doubts. It has been suggested that Cellino likes to invest in producing young players, and he reportedly was most proud at Cagliari when the club fielded six local players. But, we know that he tried to bring in up to five players on Deadline Day without consulting McDermott (probably because he wanted to sack him).

It is concerning that some Leeds fans are being so fickle. The club needs to own its ground, but Ken Bates also stressed how important it was that he repurchased it when he took over in 2005. Nine years on, the ground is no closer to returning to its rightful owners.  Cellino’s comments about the club mirror Bates too. “I’m delighted to be stepping up to the mantle at such a fantastic football club. I see Leeds as a great club that has fallen on hard times,” said Bates in 2005.

Of course new owners will pay lip service to fans. But Cellino has already tried to sack a popular manager, draft in a complete novice and employ  new players without anyone at the club’s permission. All that before he’s even officially taken charge. It should surely take more than a few cute comments to make up for that.

Cellino and McDermott were expected to meet tonight, when the former jetted in to see his probable new charges play away at Brighton. But it appears Cellino did not attend the game. But both have made reconciliatory noises since that freaky Friday two weeks ago, with McDermott even suggesting they’d chat about their mutual love for playing guitar.

But it seems an uneasy truce. Even though McDermott has said he would be happy to have Festa on his coaching staff, he is very much Cellino’s man. A couple of defeats, or anything close to resembling the 6-0 humiliation to Sheffield Wednesday, and McDermott will surely be sent on his way again. A Ferrari isn’t much use without a driver at the wheel.

Top 10 (ish) January buys: from Dugarry to Suarez

Christophe Dugarry - fleeting but brilliant.

Image – Wikimedia

A piece I wrote for Footyplace about the very best of the last 10 years of the January transfer window. Take a look at the original here.

Christophe Dugarry, Bordeaux to Birmingham (loan) – 2003

The Premier League tried to resist the imposition of a Europe-wide transfer window, which came into effect during the 2002-03 season after pressure from the European Commission. In fact, it was a bit of a volte-face after being broadly supportive of the idea during the 1990s. British authorities hand-wringing over a perceived loss of sovereignty to European technocrats – why does that ring a bell?

Any fears Birmingham City fans might have had were quashed just two days into the new system, when they drafted in World Cup-winning striker Christophe Dugarry on loan from Bordeaux.

Dugarry was a player of rare talents, but had only really shone in his native France. Spells at AC Milan and Barcelona were short-lived failures. So although it might have looked a no-brainer for a side flirting with relegation, Dugarry initially struggled here too, particularly with the over-physicality of English defences, and didn’t score his first goal until his 11th league game. But that strike signalled a run of five in four games, in which the Blues took maximum points to drag them to safety.

A permanent move followed, but Dugarry sought an early termination of his contact half-way through the next season. Although his spell in the Midlands was short, it was ever so sweet for the Bluenoses.

Nemanja Vidic, Spartak Moscow to Man Utd (£7m)/Patrice Evra, Monaco to Man Utd (£5.5m) – 2006

It would now seem peculiar to label the signing of 50% of a defence which provided the backbone for a side which has since won five Premier League titles, three League Cups and the Champions League as panicky, but that is how it appeared when Manchester United brought in Vidic and Evra back in 2006.

Evra’s first game particularly was a horror show, pulled off at half-time during an embarrassing 3-1 defeat to rivals Manchester City. This window fell In the middle of what turned out to be United’s third season without the title, and many United fans worried that Ferguson’s era of dominance was over.

His side’s defensive woes had reached a nadir in October of that season in a woeful 4-1 defeat to Middlesbrough which saw Phil Bardsley and then Kieran Richardson deployed at the back.

But it was a fear which proved to be unfounded. Vidic and Evra were gradually eased into the side which won eight games on the bounce during the second half of the season, and went on to win three consecutive titles.

Vidic became club captain, and, even at 32, there are few better left-backs around than Evra, which may look even more apparent if David Moyes is forced to give Everton another massive transfer fee for Leighton Baines.

Theo Walcott, Southampton to Arsenal (£12m) – 2006

Walcott’s crocked knee joins the confused mind of Fabio Capello in reasons why the Arsenal winger may never make an appearance at a World Cup. The closest he may ever get was his bizarre inclusion in Sven Goran Eriksson’s 2006 squad as a 17-year-old, without ever having made a top flight appearance.

That would be a sad but oddly fitting footnote to a career from which so much was expected from such a precocious youngster. Walcott has blossomed into a perfectly fine winger of growing intelligence, which, paired with frightening pace makes him one of the Arsenal’s most dangerous outlets.

But when Arsene Wenger took the 16-year-old Walcott from Southampton back in 2006, he was touted as the natural heir to Thierry Henry. He has shown fitful genius since then, but in truth it was an unfair burden to place on such a young man, who has since had to endure the frustration of Arsenal and England fans who expected so much.

Bet £10 at Ladrokes today and get £30 worth of free bets in return

Henrik Larsson, Helsingborg to Man Utd (loan) – 2007

Before David Moyes made the short-term mid-season loan move passé with his yearly call to Landon Donovan, Alex Ferguson sprung a real surprise in 2007 when he announced that the great Henrik Larsson would be joining Manchester United from Helsingborg during their winter break.

In fact, his record at Old Trafford wasn’t all that spectacular, scoring just three goals in 13 games before returning to Sweden in March. The club even had to apply for special dispensation for Larsson to pick up a Premier League winner’s medal as he didn’t make enough appearances.

But whilst his impact on the pitch was fairly inconsequential, Ferguson believed he had a much more lasting effect on the rest of his squad. “He’s been fantastic for us, his professionalism, his attitude, everything he’s done has been excellent,” he explained back in 2007.

His admiration hasn’t faded over time either. In his autobiography, released late last year, he described Larsson as a “great football aristocrat”.

Peter Whittingham, Aston Villa to Cardiff (£350,000) – 2007

Whittingham is blessed with a cultured wand of a left foot, if you’ll pardon the mixed metaphor. Part of a generation of Villa youngsters who had to move clubs to find success, Whittingham has been a Cardiff City mainstay since he moved back in 2007.

In each subsequent season the Bluebirds threatened promotion, with Whittingham playing a key role. His best campaign came in 2009-10 when he grabbed 20 goals, a quite impressive feat considering his natural position wide in midfield.

They finally clambered out of the murky Championship pit last season, and Whittingham has fitted in comfortably at a higher level. At just £350,000, he stands out as one of Cardiff’s best ever signings.

Rory Delap, Sunderland to Stoke (Free) – 2007

I don’t know if Tony Pulis was aware of the full violent potential of Rory Delap’s throw-ins when he took him on a free transfer from Sunderland back in 2007 after a short loan spell. Frankly I don’t want to know. The fact that they were joined together, the perfect unity of manager, player and philosophy is enough. The rest, as they say, is history.

Asmir Begovic, Portsmouth to Stoke (£3.25m) – 2010

Probably the best goalkeeper in the Premier League, Begovic now looks a steal after moving from Portsmouth for a smidge over £3million back in 2010. His ever-more impressive displays mean it has escalated from quite surprising to downright shocking that a top Premier League side has not moved to bring in the Bosnian.

After the World Cup in which he is bound to shine for Bosnia, his value is sure to increase. He’s even scored a goal this season – what more can he do?

Luis Suarez, Ajax to Liverpool (£22.8m) – 2011

When Liverpool splurged the proceeds of the sale of Fernando Torres on Suarez and er, Andy Carroll in 2011 they could never have imagined the impact that the Uruguayan at least would have.

Bought on the back of a stunning 2009-10 campaign for Ajax in which he scored 35 goals in 33 league games, Suarez was an instant hit at Anfield. Dispelling that tired old myth about useless strikers from Eredivisie, Suarez was the scourge of Manchester United in a 3-1 league win in March of the same year.

Carroll proved to be a whopping great £35million distraction, allowing Suarez to settle without the expectation of having to replace Torres on his own. Though you sense that he would have quite enjoyed that, having claimed the club’s famous number seven shirt as soon as he arrived.

Despite gaining an early reputation for wasting opportunities in front of goal, Suarez grabbed 11 league goals in his first full season and 23 last year. He’s started this season in electrifying form, and is rightly thought of as probably the Premier League’s best player.

His time in England has been overshadowed though by the racial abuse of Patrice Evra, and the way he and Liverpool dealt with that incident will always leave a sour taste. For such a fantastic talent, that’s a real shame.

Jason Roberts, Blackburn to Reading (Undisclosed) – 2012/Ricardo Vaz Te (Undisclosed), Barnsley to West Ham – 2012

If you looked at the hashtag of any Championship club during the January transfer window, you’d find the same shouty arguments being made by their fans. Their club needs players – better players, any players really.

They should be careful what they wish for. Managers of Championship clubs, particularly after the toil of the festive games, are attracted by the opportunity to bolster their squad. But too often this results in a short-term move for an out of favour and barely interested Premier League player, or leads to wasting precious cash on an in-form player from a club of smaller stature, who then wilts at a bigger club.

Well, Reading and West Ham did both in the winter of 2012 and got promoted, so go figure. Brian McDermott, then Reading boss, credited Roberts for inspiring the self-belief that propelled his side to 15 wins from their last 19 games.

Vaz Te was signed by West Ham after netting 10 goals for Barnsley in the first half of the season. It was a surprising leap of faith shown by Sam Allardyce, after Vaz Te had spent many fruitless years at Bolton. His trust paid off, though, as Vaz Te continued his rich goal-scoring form for the Hammers, culminating in the winning goal in the playoff final at Wembley against Blackpool.

Daniel Sturridge, Chelsea to Bolton (loan) – 2011, to Liverpool (£12m) – 2013

It’s now part of common football parlance that January is a bad time to do business. Clubs don’t want to sell halfway through a season, and players want to wait until the summer to assess their options. Well, Sturridge has always been a bit of a maverick, and has had the gall to make two hugely successful winter moves.

His deadline day move to Bolton in 2011 reaped immediate dividends when he grabbed an injury time winner against Wolves in his first game. Eight strikes in 11 games were key to ensuring Bolton weren’t dragged into a relegation battle. It seemed he was finally fulfilling the potential that he knew he had.

But life remained a struggle at Chelsea. Despite a promising 2011-12 season, he was told by Andre Villas Boas that his future at Chelsea would be purely as a wide player, and was allowed to move on to Liverpool.

Brendan Rodgers’ tactical flexibility has suited Sturridge, and he’s flourished as part of a front two or three. Since his move, he’s netted 19 Premier League goals, with the promise of more to come after his return from injury.

Phew

I started this blog over a year ago now, as I was tired of writing things and then forgetting that I’d written them.

I didn’t really imagine that me starting to write again (looking back now, mostly cringingly earnest opinions about football) would lead to me doing a Journalism course, and being lucky enough to be given the Scott Trust Bursary.

Since starting my course in September, I’ve been researching, writing and re-writing more than ever before. But, foolishly, I thought I was too busy to update my blog.

Well, now I have, and will continue to do so. It looks nicer now so I have no excuse. I hope you like what you see.

Three quarters affected by bedroom tax in Rotherham now in arrears

Rotherham Town Hall
Rotherham Town Hall

 

Three quarters of households affected by the ‘bedroom tax’ in Rotherham are now in rent arrears, with those owing most now at risk of losing their homes.

Just eight months on from the introduction of the policy, Rotherham borough council, which still retains its council housing stock, is owed £305,000 in unpaid rent.

3,335 households in Rotherham are affected by the under-occupancy charge, or ‘bedroom tax’, which sees a reduction in the amount of housing benefit given to those who are deemed to have spare bedrooms.

14% is docked for one spare room, and 25% for two or more.

1300 Rotherham tenants are in a relatively small amount of arrears, of up to £50.

But around 400 households alone make up £160,000 of the overall debt, raising fears that they could face possible eviction.

Dave Richmond, the council’s director of housing and neighbourhood services, says that could occur.

“I think so, eventually. Generally [people’s debt] is going up by relatively small amounts, somewhere between £11-20 a week. But obviously if that went on for a year or two and they don’t pay anything, then that’s £1000 a year and you could quite easily get the point where potentially we would [evict].

“If someone’s making an effort and trying to pay something off it and they’re genuinely struggling, and if they’ve done things like register to downsize, then we’d work with that.

“But if someone just digs their heels in the sand and basically says ‘I’m not paying this debt’…then eventually we’ve got to take action.”

Richmond is also sceptical of other local authorities who claim they have a ‘no-eviction’ policy concerning those affected.

“In reality they don’t. If somebody just refuses to pay then they’re not going to be prepared to tolerate that indefinitely.

“If someone is running up £1000 a year debt are you going to leave them for ten years and have a £10,000 debt? I just can’t see that.”

But the council is considering writing off debt for people who are genuinely seeking to move home but are finding it difficult.

It has also reviewed how it allocates houses in the future. Its new ‘right to refuse’ allocations policy is based on stringent financial tests to prevent people moving into a new home they cannot afford, and it has introduced fixed-term tenancies for large families, guaranteeing a house only until the youngest child turns 21.

Despite its obvious financial implications for the council, Richmond is sympathetic to those struggling to keep up with the rent.

He said: “To some degree I can understand the logic of the policy.

“We have an issue of overcrowding and people requiring bigger properties.

“[But] it feels to have been happening in such a way that it’s been relatively insensitive to individuals. Actually getting people to downsize in other ways would have been more sensible.”

Steve Ruffle, Development Manager for Rotherham Federation of Tenants and Residents said: “We have a clear policy of opposition to the bedroom tax. We very clearly feel it’s unfair.

“We do have concerns about people falling into arrears and welcome support the council and other partners can give to support people in this situation.”

Rotherham council blocks websites of payday lenders

Rotherham borough council has blocked access to the websites of payday lenders on all computers owned by the authority.

Library users, as well as the council’s own staff, will instead be re-directed to a holding page which will offer debt advice and links to the sites of local credit unions.

Councillor Mahroof Hussain, cabinet member for communities and cohesion said: “I’ve been campaigning against payday loan companies for several years and I’m acutely aware of the impact they are having. A short-term loan can become a long-term debt.

“We shouldn’t be allowing our computers to be used to generate profits for these companies.”

Russell Hamblin-Boone, chief executive of the Consumer Finance Association which represents some of the largest payday lenders said: “Rotherham council is clearly entitled to take any action it deems necessary and we would support any initiatives that drive out irresponsible lenders.

“However, we would be concerned that, without evidence of its impact, this action prevented people in Rotherham having access to responsible credit providers.”

The council has also provided the town’s credit unions with £25,000 to help with their additional caseload over Christmas and into the new year.

LASER credit union lend to its customers every 16 weeks, including just before Christmas. This encourages people to save regularly throughout the year so that they can take out a loan, capped at a maximum of 2% interest per month.

Liz Thompson, Business Manager at LASER said: “People don’t get any more benefits or wages just because it’s Christmas. But obviously there is an extra drain on their finances to afford the things that their children might want.

“It’s also about making sure that when it comes to January they can pay their rent or council tax and all those other bills that are still due even though they’re trying to afford Christmas at the same time.”

Cllr Hussain will also chair the welfare reform steering group to look at further action to take to limit the reach of payday lenders, including where they can advertise. This will report to cabinet by April next year.

But he wants to go even further.

“I want to work with the fire service, police, hospitals, voluntary sector and even the football club to create socially responsible action in Rotherham.

“When you turn on the telly, payday loan company adverts are coming on all the time. You don’t get adverts for credit unions or see them on the front of a football shirt.”

“It’s also about preparing for the future. We can’t have a society that relies on short-term money to fix long-term debt.

“Payday loan companies are using all possible mediums and we need to stop them.”

Rotherham allotment holders donate to feed hungry

FoodAWARE staff and volunteers at Maltby food bank
FoodAWARE staff and volunteers at Maltby food bank

A South Yorkshire social enterprise is encouraging allotment holders in Rotherham to donate their produce – and even grow a bit extra – to help feed hungry families.

Food AWARE has been putting up posters to let growers know where they can drop off surplus food to supply their local food banks.

It manages four across South Yorkshire, including one in Maltby in Rotherham which is open every Wednesday.

Sean Gibbons, Managing Director of Food AWARE said: “[Allotment holders] are growing a lot of locally grown food and it’s fresh. But it’s also too much.

“So we’re trying to tap into that growing capacity and seeing how they can help people less fortunate.”

Food AWARE is now looking to work with Rotherham and Doncaster local authorities to see how they can co-ordinate a bigger effort ahead of harvest festival next year.

But allotment holders have gone further than just donating surplus produce.

“Some have said ‘great, I’ve been growing on here for 20-30 years, I’m happy to grow an extra row of cabbages, potatoes, onions’, whatever it is, specifically for Food AWARE and our food banks.”

Food AWARE was established in 2008 to combat food waste and food poverty, and work to redistribute food donated by supermarkets and other suppliers into needy areas, as well as educate people about eating healthily and making food last longer.

It now feeds 1500 people a week in its food banks and through food drop-offs delivered by churches, schools and the British Red Cross.

‘More flexible’

Unlike many other food banks, Food AWARE supplies perishable food.

Gibbons said: “Our food banks are more flexible and it’s a more balanced offering. We offer fruit and veg.

“With our food parcel you’d be able to make three or four healthy snacks or meals.”

Trainee journalist. Football, politics and more.