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23 May 2013

Thousands affected in rural Wales as welfare reforms take hold

It’s Rural Housing Week and today Community Housing Cymru is warning that tenants in rural Wales will be adversely affected by the UK Government’s welfare reforms.

Sioned Hughes, Director of Policy and Regeneration at Community Housing Cymru said: ''Tenants in rural Wales are already feeling the impact of the ‘bedroom tax’ with those affected losing between £12 and £24 a week with many members reporting a rise in rent arrears since it was introduced. It has been widely publicised that there is a severe shortage of smaller properties to downsize those willing to move, but in rural counties where homes are dotted in small towns and villages, the problem is exacerbated. In addition to this, many people who are under-occupying have had their home adapted to suit their needs.''

Rural homelessness is also on the increase. In Ceredigion, rural homelessness doubled between 2009 and 2012 and there is real concern that this trend is set to increase further as a result of these reforms. Earlier this month the Welsh Government announced an injection of £20m in social housing grant to build more one and two bed properties.

Housing Minister Carl Sargeant, who will address a Rural Housing conference later today said: ''The Welsh Government is deeply concerned at the way welfare benefit cuts, being imposed by the UK Government, are affecting poorer households across Wales.

The cut in housing benefit for tenants with spare bedrooms will put pressure on many already hard pressed households, particularly in rural areas where options to move to a smaller local property may be more limited.

The Welsh Government is committed to doing all it can to ensure that the changes do the least possible damage to communities in Wales. I have allocated funding to ensure that people on low incomes continue to receive council tax benefit. However, we are under no illusion. We know that people across Wales will suffer hardship as a result of these changes.

The Welsh Government is also tackling the lack of affordable housing in rural communities across Wales. Last year, we allocated nearly £23m to rural local authorities for the provision of housing schemes and a further £11.5m is available in 2013/4.''

In addition to ‘the bedroom tax’, Universal Credit will be introduced in October. Many benefits, including housing benefit, will be phased out and replaced with Universal Credit. One person per household will be given one payment each month into one bank account and tenants will have to claim online.

Sioned added: ''We have been speaking to tenants affected by these changes and fifty percent are not online. We believe that this figure increases for tenants in rural Wales - the three counties with the highest number of broadband ‘notspots’ are Powys, Pembrokeshire and Carmarthenshire.

It is also estimated that seventy percent of our tenants are financially excluded and can’t access mainstream financial products such as basic bank accounts, with many relying on high interest door step lenders. There is a shortage of banking facilities in rural Wales, and in the last ten years just under 2,000 bank branches across the UK have closed. This has left 1,200 communities with no bank branch and while the Post Office recently announced they are to launch a current account, we have seen a high percentage of post office closures in rural Wales.

Rural Wales also has a higher percentage of people in fuel poverty. One in six households in Wales are off the gas grid with 44% of these in fuel poverty compared to around 20% in on-gas properties.

Rural Housing Week has given us the opportunity to reiterate our concerns with local elected representatives and highlight the work of the movement to mitigate against the worst effects of these reforms including the launch of the ''Your Benefits are Changing’ campaign to inform and advise tenants.''