The benefit cap is plunging private renters into poverty

Homelessness in Manchester. Image: Getty.

When George Osborne first introduced the overall household benefit cap in 2013, it limited the total amount of benefits that a household working less than 16 hours per week could claim at £26,000 a year. Initial polling found that an overwhelming majority of the public supported this idea, even those who relied on the welfare safety net were in favour. In fact, it proved so popular that two years later the government lowered the cap again. It’s now at £20,000 a year outside of London, or £23,000 in the capital. 

At Shelter we have just carried out an analysis on the impact of the lower cap on private renting families. Our findings paint a pretty bleak picture: in more than half of England the cap means that, after paying rent, a family with two children living in a small two-bed home would have less than £8 per person per day to cover all their essentials like food and bills. This would leave them at least £100 a week under the UK poverty line.

For families with three children, the cap now applies in every single area of the country. In one in five areas these families would have just £2.72 per person per day to live on after paying their rent. Could you manage on just £2.72 a day if you had to put enough money in the gas meter to stop the pipes freezing, clothe your children, keep the lights on for them to do their homework and make sure you can give them a decent meal? Probably not.

I know many people reading this will be thinking £20,000 a year is a pretty decent sum, and is what many families manage to live on. But here’s the dilemma, between the Beveridge Report of 1942 and George Osborne’s party conference speech of 2010, every architect of the welfare state has acknowledged that it has to mitigate “the problem of rent”. Rents vary so hugely across the country they simply cannot be accommodated by a one-size-fits-all approach.


This means that for some, £20,000 is an adequate sum to cover their basic livings costs. But unfortunately for quite a lot of others, rapidly rising private rents mean they can’t afford to keep a roof over their head. The government knows this: that’s why even working households earning £20,000 and over are still entitled to housing benefit in many of areas of the country where local rents are higher than they can reasonably afford.

But the benefit cap means that for some families who have fallen on particularly hard times, the safety net, which the rest of us expect to catch us in a crisis, is strictly off-limits. Like a single mother with three small children living in Sunderland who recently turned to us for help. Her youngest child is only two and since her partner left, getting back into work is proving difficult for the moment. In spite of living in a modest two-bed home, she’s got to somehow find an extra £180 a month to cover the shortfall in rent created by the cap. She is absolutely terrified her family will become homeless.

While it’s right and necessary to have restrictions on housing benefit, these should be linked to local housing costs. An arbitrary, blanket national cap ignores the reality of high local rents and turns the support available into a postcode lottery. Homelessness is fast-becoming the tragic yet inevitable outcome for those families hit the hardest. I know Shelter’s workload will only increase as the cap bites deeper.

Most people desperately want to work, but not everybody genuinely can. People’s lives will always be more complicated. Unfortunately, not everyone can work the 16 hours a week needed to avoid the cap. Many of the people we are talking about will have very young children to look after or only be able to find insecure jobs that offer them a few hours per week. Imagine if you were a single parent with young children to care for whose partner had walked out on you – realistically it might take you a bit of time to get back into work.

Whatever you think of the benefit cap in principle, putting people at risk of homelessness or forcing them into emergency accommodation is not going to help anyone find a job. The rising number of people my colleagues and I meet who are facing destitution is proof of that. I refuse to believe that those who understandably want to see fairness at the core of our welfare system would consider this a fair consequence. It’s time the government committed to preventing homelessness and rethought this cap.

Jo Underwood is a children’s solicitor at Shelter. The analysis featured in Monday night's Channel 4 Dispatches.

This article previously appeared on our sister site, the Staggers

 
 
 
 

To beat rising temperatures, Vienna launches a network of 'Cool Streets'

A Vienna resident cools off at one of the city's new Cool Streets installations. (Courtesy Christian Fürthner/Mobilitätsagentur Wien)

Over the past several months, Austria has recorded its highest unemployment rate since World War II, thanks to the economic aftermath of the Covid-19 pandemic. With no job or a suddenly smaller income – not to mention the continued threat of the virus – many Viennese will opt for a staycation this summer.  

At the same time, last year, Austria’s capital experienced 39 days with temperatures of over 30°C (86°F), one of its hottest summers in history according to the Central Institute for Meteorology and Geodynamics.

Climate experts expect a similarly sizzling 2020 season, and city officials are now doubling down on efforts to combat the heat by launching a “Cool Streets” initiative as well as a new, state-of-the-art cooling park.

“As the city councilwoman in charge of climate, it is my job to ensure local cooling,” Vienna’s deputy mayor Birgit Hebein proclaimed at the opening of one of 22 new “Cool Streets” on 22 June.

“In Austria, there are already more heat deaths than traffic fatalities,” she added.

Hebein was referring to the 766 people the Austrian Agency for Health and Food Security included in its 2018 heat-associated mortality statistics. The number was up by 31% compared to 2017, and in contrast to the 409 people who died in traffic collisions the same year.

The project includes 18 temporary Cool Streets located across the city, plus four roads that will be redesigned permanently and designated as “Cool Streets Plus”.

“The Plus version includes the planting of trees. Brighter surfaces, which reflect less heat, replace asphalt in addition to the installation of shadow or water elements,” said Kathrin Ivancsits, spokeswoman for the city-owned bureau Mobilitätsagentur, which is coordinating the project.


Vienna's seasonal Cool Streets provide shady places to rest and are closed to cars. (Petra Loho for CityMetric)

In addition to mobile shade dispensers and seating possibilities amid more greenery provided by potted plants, each street features a steel column offering drinking water and spray cooling. The temporary Cool Streets will also remain car-free until 20 September.

A sensor in the granite base releases drinking water and pushes it through 34 nozzles whenever the outside temperature reaches 25°C (77°F) . As soon as the ambient temperature drops to 23°C (73°F), the sensor, which operates from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m., turns off the water supply.

The sensors were included in part to allay concerns about legionella, a pathogenic bacteria that can reproduce in water.  

“When the spray stops, the system drains, and therefore no microbial contamination can develop,” said Dr. Hans-Peter Hutter, deputy head of the Department of Environmental Health at the Center for Public Health at Medical University Vienna, in a televised interview.

Hutter also assured the public that there is no increased risk of a Covid-19 infection from the spray as long as people adhere to the one-meter social distance requirement.


But Samer Bagaeen of the University of Kent's School of Architecture and Planning notes that air cooling systems, like the ones used in Germany at abattoirs, have been found recently to be a risk factor for Covid-19 outbreaks.

“The same could be said for spay devices,” he warned.

Vienna’s district councils selected the 22 Cool Street locations with the help of the city’s Urban Heat Vulnerability Index. The map shows where most people suffer from heat by evaluating temperature data, green and water-related infrastructure, and demographic data.

“Urban heat islands can occur when cities replace the natural land cover with dense concentrations of pavement, buildings, and other surfaces that absorb and retain heat,” as the US Environmental Protection Agency states.


A rendering of Vienna's planned park featuring a Coolspot, which is scheduled to open in August. Click to expand.
(Courtesy Carla Lo Landscape Architecture)

Vienna’s sixth district, Mariahilf, is such an area. The construction of the capital’s first “Cooling Park”, a €1 million project covering the 10,600 square-metre Esterházypark, is designed to provide relief. 

Green4Cities, a centre of excellence for green infrastructure in urban areas, designed the park’s main attraction, the “Coolspot”. The nearly 3.40-metre high steel trellis holds three rings equipped with spray nozzles. Textile shading slats, tensioned with steel cables, cover them.

The effects of evaporation and evapotranspiration create a cooler microclimate around the 30 square-metre seating area, alongside other spray spots selectively scattered across the park.

The high-pressure spray also deposits tiny droplets on plant and tree leaves, which stimulates them to sweat even more. All together, these collective measures help to cool their surroundings by up to six degrees.

The landscape architect Carla Lo and her team planned what she calls the “low-tech” park components. “Plants are an essential design element of the Cooling Park,” Lo says. “By unsealing the [soil], we can add new grass, herbaceous beds, and more climate-resistant trees to the existing cultivation”.

Light-coloured, natural stone punctuated by grass seams replaces the old concrete surfaces, and wooden benches meander throughout the park.

Living near the park and yearning for an urban escape close by, Lo says she’s motivated to ensure the park is completed by mid-August.

“If we don't do anything, Vienna will be another eight degrees Celsius hotter in 2050 than it already is,” Hebein said.

Vienna recently came in first in the World's 10 Greenest Cities Index by the consulting agency Resonance.

“There is no one size fits all on how cities respond to urban heat,” says the University of Kent’s Bagaeen, who points out that Vienna was one of the first European cities to set up an Urban Heat Islands Strategic Plan in 2015.

In the short term, prognoses on the city’s future development may be more difficult: Vienna votes this autumn.

Petra Loho is a journalist and photographer based in Austria.