This month we bring you some personal reflections from Prospect’s Money Advice Officer Pete Mowat on working in Wester Hailes, the changes he has seen, and his perspective on issues of financial exclusion.
Meditations from a Hot Zone
I was born and grew up in Edinburgh city centre and got to know Wester Hailes as a teenager in the mid 1980’s as a friend of mine lived out here. The area was a lot grimmer then with a predominance of multi-storey housing, and there was little in the way of leisure facilities and things to do for young people.
I started work in Wester Hailes as a Money Advisor with Prospect Community Housing in October 2001. Prospect had decided to recruit a Money Advisor, recognising that it would be a huge advantage to have an in house provider of benefits and debt advice rather than relying on signposting to external and often overstretched advice agencies. Not only does this service assist our tenants manage their finances better and reduce exposure to unmanageable debt and risk of homelessness, it also made sense from Prospect’s point of view. An old and trusted Money Advice phrase is “where there are rent arrears there are other debts”. Any Money Advisor prioritises rent/mortgage debts and works out affordable and often reduced payments to ordinary creditors. Therefore it is a win -win situation, with more tenants maximising income and being enabled to manage payments to rent and other liabilities, whilst the landlord brings in more rental income that is vital for its viability and development.
I was amazed at the changes I saw when I started work not having visited the area for over 15 years. Gone were most of the multi-storey blocks and in their place well designed and pleasant new houses and flats, many with gardens. There were also much improved landscaping and green space areas and much better local shopping and leisure facilities. Furthermore, Prospect’s refurbishment of Clovenstone was near completion. This area looked hugely improved and remains an impressive development to this day.
Of course it is not just bricks and mortar that make for happy and stable households and I had been employed to assist our tenants maximise their income via receiving benefit/tax credit entitlements, and providing help to negotiate affordable repayments to all manner of bills, credits and debts. These interventions also helped prevent tenants from being made homeless, via such successes as winning appeals to backdate Housing Benefit to reduce or clear rent arrears that were at a level where eviction was a real possibility.
An early example of a case I encountered was an elderly tenant who whilst was paying his rent found it a struggle. He had tried to enquire about Housing & Council Tax Benefits in the past but had been advised that he was not entitled due to the income of another household member. I established this information was incorrect as due to the tenant’s disability the other resident’s income should be disregarded. I made a new claim with the tenant and he was awarded a full rebate on these benefits, saving him over £300.00 per month. I requested this be backdated, which was refused. This went to appeal and finally at tribunal it was agreed to backdate these benefits for the maximum period of 52 weeks, resulting in the tenant receiving over £2,500.00 in payment for Housing Benefit and around £1,000.00 for backdated Council Tax Benefit. Despite the protracted appeal process the tenant was ultimately very satisfied with the outcome of his case. Continue reading