Category Archives: News

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.”

Thurcroft Big Local helping residents spend £1m on their village

Thurcroft residents are dreaming up ways to spend £1m over the next ten years to make their village a “place where people want to bring their children up in the future.”

Thurcroft was awarded the money under the Big Local scheme back in February 2012, which is lottery money allocated to small communities previously overlooked for regeneration. It aims to enable local people to improve where they live.

Thurcroft is one of 150 areas awarded funding since the scheme began in 2010.

A public meeting was held back then for local people to find out what Big Local was all about. One interested resident was 71-year-old Alan Bucknall.

“I went because I was secretary of the bowling club, to see whether there was any funding for things that the council no longer did for us.

“I very quickly realised that wasn’t what it was all about.

“It wasn’t just spending £1m. It was getting people involved and raising public spirit and getting more of a friendly feeling around the place.”

He and 20 other keen volunteers formed the Thurcroft Big Local steering group, which has spent the last year talking to Thurcroft residents about what they want the village to be like in the future.

An initial £20,000 of ‘Getting Started’ funding enabled them to help revive the Thurcroft gala, a community festival held on August bank holiday, which had not taken place for many years.

They even held a ‘onesie party’ to attract ideas.

The group then wrote a community profile in July this year, which identified three main priorities for the £1m. These are restoration of community pride, regeneration of the whole community and greater involvement of young people in services and activities.

The steering group has recently become a more formal local partnership, made up of 15 resident members with Alan as chair. They are now beginning to write their Big Local plan which will identify specific projects to spend money on.

Rotherham Federation of Tenants and Residents (RotherFed) is the trusted organisation which holds access to the money and guides the partnership through its discussions.

Steve Ruffle, Development Manager for RotherFed said: “The nature of Big Local is that it’s very flexible. It’s resident-led and there’s no push to spend all this money in the next year or two.

“It’s very early stages and the next 4-5 months will be focusing on exactly what we’re trying to do.”

But Alan believes big changes have already been made.

“We’ve already started getting young people trained up as full-time youth leaders. We’ll have a youth club we’ve not had for four or five years.

“We’ve already got a summer play scheme which we’d never had before in Thurcroft.”

The group has also pledged to run the gala for the next two years.

Although Thurcroft’s community profile stressed the pride people have in their village, it also made clear the problems it faces. Thurcroft Colliery closed in 1992, and now a quarter of working-age residents receive benefits, with 27% of children living in poverty.

But despite this, those involved in Thurcroft Big Local are optimistic about the future.

Steve Ruffle said: “My feeling is that it comes at the right time. People are wanting to start saying ‘there have been a lot of negative things that have happened to this community but we want to start doing something new’.”

Alan Bucknall also has high hopes about what Thurcroft may look like in ten years’ time after the £1m is spent.

“If we’ve listened to what people have said I would think we would have a better community spirit.

“Instead of people saying look what Dinnington has got, or what Maltby has got, they’ll be saying look what we’ve got.

“We want it to be a place where people want to bring their children up in the future.”

Locally Grown gives helping hand to entrepreneurial social housing tenants

Entrepreneurial social housing tenants in Sheffield are being encouraged to set up their own businesses through the Locally Grown initiative.

Places for People, in partnership with four other Yorkshire housing associations and a local regeneration charity Participate Projects has won £1.5m of funding from the European Regional Development Fund to assist business start-ups until July 2015.

The scheme offers tailored support for social housing residents who want to set up their own businesses, and advice for any existing small business in the area.

Places for People has already helped up to ten businesses in Leeds through Locally Grown since it launched in August this year, and is now hoping to emulate that success in Sheffield.

It aims to establish 15-17 new businesses and support a further 30 across the city over the next two years.

The support on offer ranges from business plans and advice on accessing finance, to marketing strategies, legal support and basic book-keeping.

But, often, it is simply about giving people a helping hand.

Matthew Hesketh, Business Enabler for Locally Grown said: “A lot of people struggle with I.T, but they also struggle with filling in forms and confidence to ring people up.

“Much of it is about breaking down barriers and assisting people. Some people don’t have that get up and go and confidence just to go out and talk to people.

“It really helps people to come out of their shell.”

One Sheffield company who have already benefited from Locally Grown is Pure Tech Plumbing Services, who are one of the scheme’s business assists.

Chris Hobbs, 27, set up the business last year after working for another plumbing firm since the age of 16.

“I joined the Locally Grown project a while ago and have been to a few of their sessions. Probably the most useful thing has been someone to go through your ideas and see them from another angle. Sometimes you get lost in your own approach.

“Matt [Hesketh] has also looked over some of my marketing material and helped raise my profile in the newsletter.

“It’s been good to just be able to speak to someone, it can often be a scary place setting up on your own.

“I think like any business it was slow to start with but things have picked up and I’m pretty busy now.”

More information about Pure Tech Plumbing Services can be found at www.puretechplumbing.co.uk.

Voices of the Holocaust perform the heroic story of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising

Voices of the Holocaust, a new theatre and education company, performed its latest show Fragile Fire at the Library Theatre in Sheffield on 4th December.

Fragile Fire tells the story of Mordechai Anielewicz, one of the chief figures of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, who kept the invading Nazis at bay for a month in 1943.

The group is touring with Sheffield resident Shonaleigh, who is thought to be the only remaining Drut’syla in the world, a traditional Yiddish storyteller. The play is paired with one of Shonaleigh’s stories, The Fool of the Warsaw Ghetto, which was created by her grandmother in Auschwitz.

Her grandmother survived the death camp and came to live with Shonaleigh in Britain, where she began to teach her the tradition from the age of four. Shonaleigh holds around 4,500 stories in her head, and now travels around the world telling. She is also Associate Lecturer in Storytelling at the University of Derby.

Shonaleigh said: “It is a huge reportoire of folktales, wonder tales, legends, myths, traditionally passed down from the grandmother to the granddaughter. It worked within a community, you told these stories, they promoted debate and enlightenment.”

A Drut’syla would historically be embedded within a small Jewish community, but their numbers began to diminish after the first world war, and they barely existed following the second.

“The first people into the gas chambers were the old people and the children so it pretty much wiped out the tradition.”

Shonaleigh is working with three universities to record her stories, and is beginning to teach them to her 16-year-old son.

Voices of the Holocaust was formed on Holocaust Memorial Day earlier this year, and is the only specialist group of its type in the country, teaching the Holocaust through theatre and performance.

The cast of Fragile Fire (image courtesy of http://kodishphotos.com)

 

Cate Hibbert, Voices of the Holocaust’s founder and creative director said: “What we do is create historically accurate narratives by using theatre in the most beautiful and stunning visual and aural styles you can imagine.”

Although Cate is passionate about theatre, she believes there is a fundamental problem with the way the Holocaust is being taught to children, and wants to take Voices into schools.

“We’ve only existed for a few months and we’ve had to work flat out as volunteers. We had to set this up from nothing. People didn’t really see that there was a need but there is a need and it’s massive.

“For 70 years the Jews have been represented as a people who went like lambs to the slaughter, that they didn’t fight back or resist. Well that’s not true.”

Although still in its infancy, Voices has been winning support from politicians, and attended an event in parliament earlier this year. Local MPs in its performing cities attend the shows and have been moved by what they have seen.

Iain Stewart, MP for Milton Keynes South, where Voices have their headquarters, said: “I think that the work of Voices of the Holocaust is a very effective way of bringing the reality of the Holocaust into the curriculum for students.

“As time goes on fewer and fewer survivors of the Holocaust will be left to tell their stories firsthand. These need to be kept alive to remind, and educate, future generations about the possible consequences of intolerance.”

Fragile Fire is touring theatres across the country. More information about the show can be found at http://www.voicesoftheholocaust.co.uk/.

Homeless charity Roundabout launch £10,000 crowdfund for ‘extremely run down’ flats

Amy Casbolt, fundraising co-ordinator at Roundabout
Amy Casbolt, fundraising co-ordinator at Roundabout

A Sheffield charity has launched an online appeal to raise the £10,000 it needs to renovate flats for young homeless people.

Roundabout is asking people to invest directly in the project through a six-week crowfunding campaign. Those who donate can then track the progress of the appeal online.

It is hoping that this innovative new way of raising funds will enable it to provide a much-needed facelift for its eight flats on St Barnabas’ Road.

‘Extremely run down’

Amy Casbolt, fundraising co-ordinator for Roundabout said: “They’re extremely run down. There’s not much furniture in there, they need painting, the heating system is terrible and they’re really not nice.”

The flats are next-door to Roundabout’s Emergency Access Hostel, the only one in Sheffield to take in 16 and 17 year olds. Young people typically stay there for six weeks before moving into the flats, where they can stay for up to a year.

The hostel last year underwent a huge £1m refurbishment to provide more bedrooms for residents and training space for Roundabout staff, who help those staying to claim appropriate benefits and plan for life after they move out.

Casbolt said: “It’s been really nice to see the impact that’s had on the young people.

“But it’s always been an incentive for people in the hostel that if you work with us, you can then move onto the flats next door, and they’re thinking why would I want to go there when it’s really nice in here?”

The hostel refurbishment was completed with £700,000 of financial support from South Yorkshire Housing Association, but there wasn’t enough money remaining for the adjoining flats.

Increasing demand

Roundabout’s funding model has had to change in response to reduced Government assistance through the Supporting People programme, and demand for its services is increasing. It currently has to turn away 25 people a week.

Casbolt says this is driving the move towards new and less traditional forms of investment, like the crowdfund.

“I don’t think people realise what’s happening on their own doorstep. We support 150 young people every single day in Sheffield.

“We can’t do it without the support of local people. We desperately need people to donate – even £5 or whatever people can spare.

“Everyone who donates is helping to provide a safe place for young homeless people in Sheffield.”