Staying true to the mission of our founder Reverend Paul Nicolson

Last Saturday, I was privileged to attend a memorial service for Z2K’s founder – the Reverend Paul Nicolson. It was a deeply moving occasion, with wonderful stories of Paul’s life from his children and tributes from colleagues in the many campaigns he was involved in. My kids will testify I’m not much of a singer, but even I got swept up in the rousing rendition of the Battle Hymn of the Republic – aka “Mine eyes have seen the glory”. Thankfully, the congregation of Tottenham’s St Paul the Apostle church was on hand to sing it the way it’s meant to be sung!

I first joined Z2K back in 2013 just as the first round of the Coalition Government’s cuts to Social Security benefits were beginning to bite.  While he had stepped back from a frontline role, Paul was still very much involved as a Board member.  And I remember several meetings with him rightly railing against the injustice of the Government’s caps on Local Housing Allowance (LHA) rates of Housing Benefit for tenants in the private rented sector and the pernicious Benefit Cap and Bedroom Tax. 

Paul was right.  Ministers claimed these policies would push down rents and therefore public expenditure on Housing Benefit.  In reality, they just left tens of thousands of the country’s poorest citizens facing significant shortfalls between the rent they owed and the HB they got to cover it.  As their rent arrears grew inexorably in the months that followed, many of those tenants were left facing eviction and homelessness – exactly as many experts had prophesised.  

In 2012, Paul’s successor as Z2K’s leader, Joanna Kennedy, secured funding from the Oak Foundation to try to help some of those worst affected.  Over the next three years, Joanna, Romin Sutherland, Jamie Wallace and a group of committed volunteers helped nearly a thousand families and vulnerable single people secure a Discretionary Housing Payment (DHP) to help cover the shortfall, argue with the landlord against further rent rises or even pursue a formal homelessness application through Westminster City Council’s reluctant Housing Options Service. 

This work got even harder after 2013 when Chancellor George Osborne doubled down on austerity and imposed even tougher caps on LHA rates.  To be fair, Lib Dem Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg and his colleagues did secure a commitment that DWP would reinvest one-third of the savings from this cut in a new Targeted Affordability Fund (TAF) to increase LHA rates in those areas experiencing the highest increases in market rents.  This squeeze then became a complete freeze over the next four years when David Cameron and George Osborne were liberated from their coalition partners by the electorate in 2015.  Many organisations chronicled the adverse impact.

One of the most unexpected actions at the start of the pandemic was to end that freeze and peg LHA rates back at the 30th percentile of market rents. While Z2K would always want to see them set at the median level so that at least half the homes available in theory are affordable in practice, we couldn’t deny this was a very positive step.  It undoubtedly then helped many of those who lost their job due to Covid avoid falling into arrears.  Helpfully, DWP even went on to publish an Equality Impact Assessment showing the real benefits to tenants of the policy shift.  Less helpfully, the Chancellor froze those rates for 2021/22.

I was reminded of all this when one of the housing sector’s most effective sleuths, Jules Birch, tweeted he had found some small print in HM Treasury’s recent Policy Costings document that implied LHA rates were going to be frozen again next year.  Needless to say, this wasn’t mentioned in the Chancellor’s Spending Review Statement itself.  I guess in some ways making ministers hide this policy rather than lauding it to their friends in the press is a victory of sorts.  But it is a hollow one for the tenants still hit by it.  There isn’t even the mitigation of another Targeted Affordability Fund or extra money for DHPs.  I’m sure Paul Nicolson would have said it’s just a straight cut.

Paul’s death just prior to the pandemic wasn’t just a tragic loss to his family and friends, it was a blow to the anti-poverty movement at large.  I feel certain he would have had a very great deal to say about the inequality and injustice Covid has laid bare, and he might have even found a new audience for his message.  It was brilliant to finally be able to come together in person last weekend to celebrate Paul’s life, but for me it was even better to hear so many of those who were there rededicating themselves to continuing the campaigns and missions they shared with him. 

Paul’s own truth really does go marching on.

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