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.
Another case I worked on more recently involved a shared owner who was being pursued by an Insolvency Practitioner for fees of £6,000.00. The shared owner was anxious and exasperated as she was on a low income and was being asked to settle this sum in full urgently. She had no resources to pay this amount in full and due to her low income and recent insolvency could neither obtain nor afford credit to finance this debt. She now had genuine and well founded concerns that her home could be at risk of repossession given that she was unable to repay this liability. Prior to meeting with me, she had appealed to the company concerned and enlisted representation from an established Advice agency but was unable to get the situation revised. I identified that the company had committed a serious error in their management of the case which although was not unlawful was certainly contrary to good practice. After several correspondences I was able to have the liability reduced from £6,000.00 to £500.00, with agreement that this fee could be repaid over two monthly instalments, a situation that greatly relieved the client in that she could comfortably afford to settle this much reduced payment and be assured that her home ownership was secure.
Not all cases are resolved so satisfactorily and often the best you can do is to reduce financial hardship rather than eradicate it. Worse still sometimes the illogical iniquities that can occur within the benefits system can confound any attempt at intervention. A recent example of this is a young single female tenant seeking advice. She had a history of short periods of unskilled appointment until she lost her work due to the recession and returned to be in receipt of Job Seekers Allowance (JSA). She responded to an employability project that Prospect were participating in and obtained a placement in a childcare facility. She enjoyed this tremendously and performed so well that she was offered a place at a local College to study for a child care certificate. On commencement of the course her JSA would end as she would become a full time student and therefore not be available to find work. The college would pay a bursary of just £70.00 per week, around the level of her JSA, yet due to the UK benefit regulations she is prohibited from receiving Housing Benefit as a student. If she was 19 instead of in her twenties she would be eligible for Housing Benefit to cover 80% of her rent. Likewise if she had a child she would also be able to receive Housing Benefit. This leaves this young woman with an impossible dilemma. Accept the course and she will have to pay £65 per week in rent leaving her with £5.00 per week. Alternatively she can only turn down the opportunity and become unemployed again. This example demonstrates how ludicrous and counter-productive UK government policies in the areas of welfare benefits and employability can be. This talented and enthusiastic young person is being thwarted from obtaining an education that would enable her to obtain valued and sustainable employment in the crucial work of caring for our young children. Prospect are so concerned for this tenant that we have sought intervention from local MP’s, however if there is no solution to this she may become another NEET (young person not in employment, education or training) and yet another addition to the country’s spiralling unemployment figures.
I became aware quite early on after joining Prospect that there were features and issues experienced by Wester Hailes residents that were divergent from my experience working as a Money Advisor covering all areas in Edinburgh. For example there was a higher prevalence of households with no-one working present. Many of these were lone parents caring for young children, but there were also high levels of young and older single people with long term unemployment histories, and some of these were people who had also grown up within a household where no-one had worked. The variances I found were by no means all negative. I discovered a far greater prevalence of community living and good neighbour relations than I experienced in the city centre, whilst immediate and extended families were typically close and supportive. There was also evidence that young people born in the area were coming to Prospect as young adults seeking to become tenants of ours and stay in Wester Hailes, a trait that is often not seen in other parts of the city. Indeed elsewhere you often see young people choosing to move to any area other than where they grew up. I also soon discovered that there was a higher than average presence of ethnic minorities in Wester Hailes and that this community was well established and integrated. I also found that the vast majority of people I encountered were good humoured, spirited and able to budget and manage finances from often very low incomes.
The reasons behind the higher levels of unemployment were complicated and entrenched. There were older adults who had lost long term work during the last recession in the early 1990’s, and had since remained on Incapacity Benefit on grounds of physical or mental health issues. Perhaps being required to attend a medical every six months, they were otherwise largely ignored by a system that conveniently and perversely benefited by excluding such individuals from official unemployment statistics. If the government is not careful the mistakes of the last recession could be repeated in this one if more is not done to address barriers to employment such as the case of the young tenant outlined earlier.
Likewise some young people with little educational achievement and little or no work experience were often on Incapacity Benefit or long term Job Seekers Allowance. Quite often these individuals had mild to moderate depression and could, with support, enter and sustain employment. However such support was not widely available and the health and employability of such people was being exacerbated via loss of confidence and isolation as a consequence of long term unemployment and hardship experienced from having to survive on £40.00- £100.00 per week. There were also higher levels of substance abuse and mental illness across the age spectrum, nothing unique to Wester Hailes but a common find for complex reasons in large estates where social rented housing is the predominant tenure.
As a result of the demographics of the social housing rented sector in Wester Hailes, the area became a “hot zone” for a variety of local and UK initiatives to address higher levels of working age unemployment, etc. Equally the term hot zone has also been used as a euphemism for dumping ground, a phrase that has been used historically to describe Wester Hailes and other areas such as Craigmillar. Hindsight is a wonderful thing but is shouldn’t have been required to have predicted some of the planning failures when estates like Wester Hailes were devised and constructed. To house thousands of people from close knit tenements into high rise poorly constructed buildings, with no local employment or leisure and shopping facilities was always going to create health, wealth and social problems. The birth of Prospect in 1989, then Wester Hailes Housing Association, brought about some dramatically improved housing stock but the recession from that same period precipitated a lengthy neglect to take on the wider challenges around such issues as employability and health.
Some of the motives for such more recent hot zone initiatives are open to debate, but either by accident or design there were some positive outcomes from these. For example there was a drive to target employment for lone parents and the over 50’s, with additional tax credits awarded for up to one year where the work was sustained. Wester Hailes was one of a few pilot areas to trial this In Work Credit before it was rolled out throughout the UK. This extra income, up to £40.00 per week and disregarded as income for Housing Benefit, was a big help to those eligible to receive it and a factor in avoiding a return to work failing after a short period. The first few months of work are a real challenge on many levels for someone previously long term employed, and a financial incentive helped reduced the difficult transition from being on benefits to working and paying rent etc. Not all such returns to work succeeded, but many were sustained. Typically such jobs were around minimum wage and often part-time due to child care needs, so by no means were households very much better off financially. However many enjoyed the social interaction and increased self esteem from being in work, and hoped that with greater experience better paid employment opportunities could be realized.
Some time before my appointment at Prospect it had been recognised by many that there were problems locally in accessing bank accounts and sources of available credit. High levels of use of extortionate (170% apr) “doorstep lending” amongst our tenants is known to be the case, probably at least 33% of them use this as their main source of credit. Out of this crisis the Wester Hailes Community Banking initiative was launched, led by Eoghan Howard and others in partnership with Prospect and Bank of Scotland. One major success of this was that 2,000 new bank accounts were opened by local residents following large take up campaigns that greatly simplified the process.
To address the issue of access to affordable credit, in 2003 Prospect and Bank of Scotland launched Prospect Plus, a savings and loans scheme for our tenants. Those tenants who took advantage of it greatly welcomed the low interest charges, savings hundreds of pounds per loan compared to doorstep credit. Unfortunately we could not get the products to be as flexible and accessible to meet our tenants’ needs so there was limited take-up and after a few years Prospect Plus was terminated. However the need for such ethical financial services provided locally is greater than ever and Prospect are actively seeking new partners to launch an alternative service in the near future.
Historically Wester Hailes was often misrepresented as an unpopular or even dangerous area with low demand for housing, and one that where high numbers of homeless people were housed regardless of their preference to live elsewhere. This myth has been debunked in recent years with the advent of a choice based lettings system in Edinburgh. All council and Prospect vacant properties are advertised and we have an average of 120 people bidding for each house that Prospect has available. This demonstrates a strong core of housing applicants who desire to reside in the thriving community of Wester Hailes.
Of course obtaining an unfurnished tenancy without the means to equip it places often vulnerable people at the risk abandoning their tenancy being unable to cope. That is why as a Money Advisor I also assist new tenants with options such as applying for social fund help and with making referrals to local furniture provision charities. In addition for many years now Prospect staff have assisted new (and existing) tenants complete applications for Housing and Council Tax benefits and see that these are processed quickly in partnership with City of Edinburgh Council. These combined interventions help enable tenants transform their empty property into a sustainable home, whilst reducing the risk of tenancy failure and subsequent repeated homelessness.
Much more needs to be done to improve the quality of life of residents in our community, yet with the commitment and enthusiasm of the community and local partner organisations, there is every reason to have confidence that the best out west is yet to come.