Student housing risks balance

Today I’ve written in the Evening News about why I believe we must avoid over-concentrations of students in any part of our city. I’ve reproduced my article in full below.

Last week, student accommodation specialist Unite announced plans to refurbish the Homebase DIY store on St Leonards Street and build a five-storey block of flats on top. This comes soon after an application for student housing at Lutton Place, which will be considered by the planning committee shortly.

I formally objected to the proposal at Lutton Place and last Thursday I told the Evening News I would do likewise with St Leonards Street (‘£38m Student housing plan for St Leonard’s area’, 20 February).

However, John McLellan then used his column to suggest I was simply “fishing for votes”.

John is right to think that many of my constituents are strongly opposed to these developments, and part of my role as their MP is to publicly articulate their concerns. But this wasn’t the only reason I spoke out – I also firmly believe that we must avoid over-concentrations of students in any part of our city.

Despite council policy stating that no more than 30 per cent of housing in any area should be taken up by students, the 2011 census indicated that 194 out of 392 residents in the streets immediately around these developments were already at university – nearly 50 per cent. If the Lutton Place development goes ahead, it would add a further 240 students, pushing the measure up to 68 per cent.

This new proposal will only exacerbate the issue. It’s not as if there isn’t more student housing going up elsewhere in the Southside, with a large development being built on the old Deaconess Hospital site, while another on Holyrood Road promises more than 1000 units of student accommodation.

John rightly noted how successful our city’s universities are, and the huge contribution they make to the local economy. I agree, and would also want to highlight how students contribute to the diversity and vibrancy of the Southside.

However, we have to acknowledge that the student population is highly transient, and too high a concentration can lead to more unstable communities. Properties are often left empty during holiday periods, while school provision and other community facilities will be affected. The student lifestyle can cause friction within the community. I suspect many students themselves would acknowledge these issues.

Part of Edinburgh’s charm and strength is that we have retained a substantial permanent residential population in our city centre, and this is exactly why the council has a policy on student housing. So while I welcome some expansion in student housing, we also need more homes for families and older residents.

Let’s hope the council’s planning officers take note.

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Press release: Iain Duncan Smith is using disabled people as Guinea Pigs

Work and Pensions Select Committee member Sheila Gilmore MP today slammed Iain Duncan Smith for using disabled people as Guinea Pigs following a report from the National Audit Office that concluded his Department rolled out Personal Independence Payment – the Government’s replacement for Disability Living Allowance – without ensuring assessors could process large volumes of claims.

Sheila Gilmore said:

Last week I argued in the Huffington Post that, by not properly piloting the assessment process for Personal Independence Payment, Iain Duncan Smith was using disabled people as guinea pigs.

Today’s National Audit Office report confirms this is the case.

A pilot was launched in some parts of the north of England last April, but this ran for only two months before the new benefit was rolled out across the country in June.

The Work and Pensions Select Committee – of which I’m a member – raised doubts about this in advance, but these were brushed off.

Today’s report shows this was a mistake – a mistake that is causing distress and financial hardship for disabled people across the country.

Sheila Gilmore highlighted the experiences of a constituent:

My constituent Jane suffers from Huntingdon’s Disease. She applied for PIP in September, had a face-to-face assessment in November, and was told on 14 February that it would be another six weeks before she received a decision.

That will mean the process will have taken six months from start to finish, and if her application is refused and she appeals, there could be further months of uncertainty.

Jane is a single parent with five children. Anxiety and depression is common in sufferers of Huntingdon’s, but her health is worsening as a result of the delays. In her own words “I am struggling with everyday life, it’s always on my mind”.

Notes to Editors:

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Atos quietly dropped from carrying out repeat reassessments by DWP, internal memo shows

Since the Employment and Support Allowance replaced Incapacity Benefit for new claimants in 2008, recipients have had to attend period re-assessments to check whether their condition has changed. While I don’t object to this in principle, I have long argued that people were being called back far too regularly, and that others with progressive conditions should be excluded altogether (or at least re-assessed on paper, without the need for a face-to-face assessment). Yesterday an internal DWP memo exposed the fact that all reassessments had been suspended since mid-January, and my comments on this were carried in The Independent. I’ve reproduced them in full below:

Labour MP Sheila Gilmore has also been campaigning for more effective reassessments since the first negative reports appeared.

She told The Independent: “For many individuals it will be a relief not to be called back for reassessment every year, or even more often. Some people winning appeals find themselves recalled for reassessment within a few weeks of winning their appeal. But this is not a planned reaction to the problem of too frequent reassessments, but a panic reaction to a crisis causing unacceptable delays for people claiming both ESA and PIP. A panic reaction that Ministers failed to announce to MPs yesterday, despite being asked several questions about the delays from MPs. A panic reaction that claimants wouldn’t have ‘officially’ known about since it wasn’t made public and so many people will continue to worry in anticipation of being asked in for a reassessment.

Ms Gilmore raised concerns that Atos would still carry out assessments for PIP in spite of the issues with the Work Capability Assessment. She added “It is clear that ATOS is not coping with all that it has taken on. My question to the Minister yesterday was why when concerns about ATOS capacity and quality were clear last year, they were awarded a new contract for PIP. It is a different assessment but the organisation clearly hasn’t got the capacity. Over frequency of reassessments is something I have raised in previous debates with Ministers, and something which many campaigners have been raising for a long time, not only because of the stress to individuals but the extra costs involved. It would be good to think that the Government had finally accepted this argument – but this sort of panic measure is no substitute for looking properly at the way the test is structured and administered.”

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Building more low-cost housing is answer to housing benefit conundrum

Today I’ve written about housing policy in the Daily Mirror. I’ve reproduced this article in full below.

The Labour Member of Parliament for Edinburgh East says we need to change the balance of money spent on building against subsidising rent

In 1980 £16 of every £20 the Government spent on helping those on low incomes secure housing went on building homes, while only £4 went on subsidising rents.

Last year only £1 of every £20 went on new homes and £19 on housing benefit. We need to move the balance back.

Long-term homes at affordable rents are badly needed. The shortage leads to people on low incomes having no choice but to move into the private sector which they can only afford, whether working or not, with housing benefit.

Many former council properties are being snapped up by landlords and the Mirror has done an important job in showing how many are getting very large sums from benefits.

We need substantial and sustained investment in building and acquiring low rent housing and not the 80% of market rent model the current government is proposing as “affordable” housing.

There also needs to be a reduction in the use of private lets to meet the needs of low income households as new homes come on stream.

The move to housing benefit has lined the pockets of landlords .

Time for change.

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Press Release from Sheila Gilmore MP: Statistics watchdog slams Iain Duncan Smith over benefits figures

Work and Pensions Select Committee member Sheila Gilmore MP today welcomed a letter from the UK Statistics Authority that described figures published by Iain Duncan Smith’s Department as ‘potentially misleading’ and questioned their status as ‘National Statistics’.

The figures relate to Employment and Support Allowance (ESA), the benefit which provides support  for people who cannot work due to a health condition or disability. Since it replaced Incapacity Benefit in 2008, data from the Department for Work and Pensions has shown that, of all claimants declared as ‘Fit for Work’, one in ten are subsequently awarded ESA after a formal appeal.

However research by campaigners suggested that the number of Fit for Work decisions and successful appeals have been artificially suppressed. This is because figures that supposedly showed the number of people awarded benefit immediately after assessment and before ANY appeals actually already took into account the results of informal appeals against refusals.

Sheila Gilmore raised practice with the UK Statistics Authority in a letter dated 20 December, and this was subsequently acknowledged in a response from the Chair, Sir Andrew Dilnot, on Friday 21 February.

Sheila Gilmore said:

I regularly meet sick and disabled people who are unable to work but who have been declared fit to do so following a flawed ESA assessment.

Until recently we thought that the assessment was getting about one in ten fit for work decisions wrong – far too many in most people’s eyes – but now we know the Government have been fiddling the figures, the reality could be much much worse.

Ministers had led us to believe they were publishing figures that showed the number of people awarded benefit immediately after assessment and before ANY appeals. It now turns out that informal appeals to officials – as opposed to formal ones to judges – were being included in the figures.

Now that the UK Statistics Authority have described these figures as ‘potentially misleading’ and questioned their status as ‘National Statistics’, Iain Duncan Smith should now get on with fixing the test to reduce the number of incorrect decisions, rather than fixing the figures to downplay the problem.

Sheila Gilmore paid tribute to campaigners who brought this issue to her attention:

I want to pay special tribute to the campaigners who brought this issue to my attention. Nick Dilworth from the ilegal network deserves particular credit.

Notes to Editors:

  • Sheila Gilmore’s letter to the UK Statistics Authority dated 20 December 2013 can be found here: http://www.sheilagilmore.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2013/12/GILM0200202131962020019942.pdf
  • The reply from Sir Andrew Dilnot, Chair of the UK Statistics Authority, dated 21 February 2014 can be found here: http://www.sheilagilmore.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2014/02/images-letterfromsirandrewdilnottosheilagilmoremp2102201_tcm97-43651.pdf
  • The key section reads (emphasis added): ‘We have concluded that the title of Table 1a in the quarterly statistical release Employment and Support Allowance: outcomes of Work Capability Assessments, Great Britain is potentially misleading, as you suggest, and we will be asking DWP statisticians to consider an alternative labelling so as to correct this and to alert users to this issue. The Authority will review compliance with this request as part of following up on our recent statutory assessment of these statistics, and this will therefore inform in part our consequent decision as to whether to confirm the designation of this set of statistics as ‘National Statistics’.’
  • This ESA informal appeal process is known as ‘reconsideration’, and involves people who have been found ‘Fit for Work’ asking DWP civil servants to look at their cases again. If the decision remains the same then claimants can lodge a formal appeal with HM Courts and Tribunal Service, and separate statistics have previously been published on the number of people on ESA following this further stage.
  • For more information please contact Matt Brennan, Parliamentary Assistant to Sheila Gilmore MP, on 020 7219 7062, 07742 986 513 or matthew.brennan@parliament.uk.
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