A Norwich community centre meeting room was last night (24 April) packed with angy local residents speaking out against the government's 'bedroom tax' - the reduction in housing benefit for recipients believed by the government to have one or more 'spare' bedrooms.
Around 60 people attended the meeting, in the Norman Centre in Mile Cross, Norwich, called by Norfolk Coalition Against the Cuts as part of its 'axe the bedroom tax' campaign. This follows two recent rallies against the tax, in Norwich. Amongst those attending were Labour Party and Green Party councillors and former Labour MP, Ian Gibson.
Many Mile Cross residents described the increasing pressures arising from the bedroom tax, which is cutting many - already low - family incomes by as much as £14 - £18 a week. Some resident are being pressed to consider smaller accommodation which is often inappropriate.
Several residents described their fears at the prospect of being forced to live on even less income or being obliged to move to smaller accommodation away from relatives and others who provide support. In many cases this would mean disabled people leaving homes which have been adapted for their needs.
Examples of the comments made include the following. Residents did not give their names.
'A' said: 'I have cerebral palsy and epilepsy and I have lived in my home for 18 years. It has been adpted to help me cope. There are no smaller places suitable. I have been shown one flat which was unadaped. The pressure is terrible and I am losing sleep. This is going to make a lot of people ill over the pressure. I can't see any fairness in it - and it will cost the government more if I move: they will have to adapt another place'.
'B' said: 'I am disabled. I have an adapted house. I have been told to take a smaller place three and a half miles away - away from my support network'.
'C' said: 'I have lived here 30 years and brought up four kids. My husband is disabled. My son is at home. They've got nowhere to put me'.
'D' said: 'I can't afford to live on any less. I was told if you want a 13 week opt-out, see your doctor and ask him to write a letter. The doctor said it would cost £19. I said "I can't afford it, I am here because I can't afford more. I haven't got £19". What do I do?'
'E' said: 'The Conservatives talk about council houses, they don't talk about council homes. My house is a home'. (applause).
'F' said: 'I am not pleading I am a special case. I want to keep my house because it's my home'. (applause).
The meeting heard many testimonies and questions and there was debate about how local politicians were responding to the bedroom tax and to inquiries. One resident said the Conservative MP for Norwich North, Chloe Smith, had emailed her claiming that disabled people were exempt from the 'bedroom tax', but had later claimed this had been a "typing error". Another resident said she had had the same experience.
Norwich City Council's Labour group was criticised by some residents for having refused to commit to a Green Party proposal for a policy of 'no evictions' which would guarantee no council tenant would be evicted on the grounds of non-payment of rent which was solely due to the impact of the 'bedroom tax'. Labour councillors had agreed instead to 'take into consideration' the impact of the bedroom tax on rent defaulters. Labour councillors defended their stance - which they said was necessary for legal reasons. They reminded the meeting that the 'bedroom tax' was a government policy forced upon local councils, about which they had lodged complaints. They pledged to support local victims of the tax, but this did not satify everyone present. One local resident suggested that Norwich Labour councillors should seek advice from Labour councillors elsewhere who had committed to a 'no evictions' policy, such as those in Islington.
A follow-up meeting is scheduled for next week (Wednesday 1 May) at the Norman Centre. This will serve as an advice service for residents affected by the 'bedroom tax' and as a meeting to consider ideas for local support and a community response.
Resident will be advised on how to complete forms challenging the demands of the bedroom tax.
Richard Edwards, chair of Norfolk Coalition Against the Cuts, who was present at the meeting, said:
'This is the first of a series of local meetings that campaigners against the Bedroom Tax will be holding on affected estates around the city. We will help those affected to organise themselves to defend their homes from potential evictions. We will build a movement of residents across the city and link them up. The stories told by the residents most affected exposed the lies spread by the Government that this measure won't hurt the disabled and that alternatives can be found for them all. There isn't sufficient supply of smaller social housing. If they are forced into the private sector where rents are higher the Housing Benefit bill will rise. All of the people that spoke at the meeting told a story of fears of a bleak future, but we are determined they will not fight alone.'
Ian Gibson said: 'We are going to make the bedroom tax unworkable, just as the Poll Tax was made unworkable and had to be abandoned by Margaret Thatcher. I want to see people coming together to support each other as part of a Norfolk wide rejection of the bedroom tax. The Tory government has also got to be forced to give back the money it has stolen from local councils'.