Rent arrears in Crawley have rocketed since rollout of Universal Credit

Universal credit (Photo by Jack Taylor/Getty Images) SUS-190310-163420001
Universal credit (Photo by Jack Taylor/Getty Images) SUS-190310-163420001

The amount of housing rent arrears owed to Crawley Borough Council has rocketed since the introduction of Universal Credit.

Before the new benefits system was rolled out in June 2018, the amount of rent unpaid hovered around a £470,000 average.

In May it peaked at just under £750,000 with officers predicting a further rise to £814,000 by April.

The workload for council staff has increased so much that members of the cabinet have agreed that four new housing officers should be hired immediately, with two more at a later date.

A report put to the cabinet said there had been a number of problems with the roll-out of Universal Credit.

They included customers misunderstanding the system, which led to delays in making claims and an increase in their time without money; the delay in receiving their first payment; and tenants building up more debt because they applied for an advance but did not use it to pay their rent.

The fact that most people have to claim online also caused problems, with some not understanding how to do so.

Ian Irvine, cabinet member for housing, said: “The major reason is the way that Universal Credit is being rolled out. People have to wait five weeks for their payments.

“I must stress that we’re not alone in this. It’s across the board.”

He assured members that the cost of the new appointments would not lead to an increase in either council tax or rents.

Tina Belben, vice-chairman of the overview and scrutiny committee, which studied the proposals, said: “It’s vital that we ensure that people don’t get into debt and it becomes unmanageable because it’s so much easier to collect a smaller debt.”

Chris Mullins, cabinet member for wellbeing, said he didn’t understand why there had to be a delay when people applied for Universal Credit.

He added: “Our officers give great empathy and understanding to these tenants who are forced into this new regime. It’s an unfair regime, it’s not right.

“I think the transfer to Universal Credit, if it had to take place at all, should have been seamless and the money should have been continuous.”

The cabinet also agreed that another person should be added to the cleaning and clearance team, which provides cleaning services to new build flats.

And £13,500 was approved for an addition to the older persons services team to help reduce the impact of the loss of a £70,000 West Sussex County Council grant.

The next meeting of the full council will be asked to agree an additional budget of £265,500pa for the new posts.