A bus drivers crisis

On the eve of the June 22 London bus drivers strike Gerry Downing reports on the plight of one not so untypical worker

Ahead of Friday’s walkout by London bus drivers, sections of the media are making ready to attack the strikers for exercising their right to claim a meagre bonus for working during the unusually busy Olympic period. Meanwhile most London bus drivers are struggling to get by. We’re reproducing below a synopsis by an advice worker who has been trying to help a driver and his family deal with their horrendous housing crisis.

What you are about to read may sound like an exceptionally horrific tale of the recession. But the reality of Cameron’s Britain is that stories like these are becoming increasingly commonplace. Thousands of families are unable to meet the costs of the bosses’ crisis, thousands of children are going hungry or living in cramped conditions, and thousands of parents are struggling to feed them. Some of those parents will be going on strike this Friday.

“I have been working with the … family for many months trying to help them with their homeless persons application to Brent council. The family consists of Mr and Mrs Counihan and their five children under 15 years. Mrs Counihan was born and bred in Brent, Mr Counihan has lived there for over 20 years. The family have significant health problems: Mrs Counihan is significantly disabled and the youngest child suffers from autism. Mr Counihan works in Brent as a bus driver.

“In 2009 I assisted the family with their housing. Brent council placed them in NW6. The rent was £690 per week. The Counihans were responsible for £230 per week of this rent and housing benefit covered the balance.

“In January 2010 Mr Counihan inherited 9.5 acres of farmland in Ireland from his late father. The land is of poor quality and four acres of it is waterlogged most of the year. It has no planning permission and obtaining planning permission is not possible because of the inaccessibility of the parcel of land. The Counihans attempted to sell the land but failed, not least due to the dire economic situation in Ireland. They realised that all they could do with the land was rent it to a local farmer for grazing purposes.

“The land can support up to 20 cattle at a time. The going rate for land such as this is €1,200 per year and the Counihans managed to secure this sum. The family immediately declared this extra income to housing benefit and working tax credits. This resulted in an increase in their rental contributions and a reduction in their working tax credits. They also lost their entitlement to free school meals and prescriptions. The family accepted these changes.

“In December 2011 they were contacted by the housing benefit department for a review of their circumstances, and again they declared their income from the land. This time, however, they were told that, as they had capital (the land), they were not nor ever had been entitled to housing benefit. Their benefit was immediately stopped and they were given a bill for £69,000 (later reduced to £46,000). Unable to pay a rent of £690 per week on a bus driver’s salary, the family became homeless.

“We assisted the family in making a homeless person’s application to Brent council in January 2012. Their application was the subject of ‘gatekeeping’ and the family were directed to housing advice instead. The advice given was to get a mortgage. This was of no help as on their income and with five dependants, a mortgage was unobtainable. The family were also incurring a debt of over £1,600 per month in their unaffordable accommodation. We assisted the family with an appeal against housing benefit’s decision.

“The Counihans received notice to quit their accommodation by April 27 2012. We again assisted the family in making a homeless persons application. On this occasion, we had to accompany the family to the council to avoid a repeat of the previous ‘gatekeeping’. We made it perfectly clear that any housing must be suitable and therefore affordable. The housing department were made aware of the Counihans’ ineligibility for housing benefit. The housing department nevertheless provided temporary housing for the family which was neither suitable nor affordable at a cost of £500 per week.

“Despite having all the information necessary to make a decision on the family’s housing application, no decision is forthcoming. We believe the housing department is awaiting a decision on the housing benefit appeal before making their own decision in the hope that they can find the family intentionally homeless. An authority may not delay making a decision in the hope or expectation of a change in circumstances such as might reduce its duties.

“Mr and Mrs Counihan have acted in good faith at all times and the dire situation they find themselves in is not of their making. The family are under considerable stress due to this appalling situation and three of the children are receiving medical care as a result. Mrs Counihan is suicidal and Mr Counihan is finding it very hard to cope.”

We understand that Mrs Counihan is awaiting an urgent hip replacement at present, while every day she has to take her children to school in Kilburn from the family’s accommodation in South Ealing.

If anyone is able to provide any advice on how to help the Counihan family, please contact Gerry Downing on gerdowning@btinternet.com