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This is News in Brief - a weekly round up of the latest news and events affecting the housing industry and communities in the Wakefield district and beyond.

Excess winter deaths among the over-65s fell by a dramatic 50% following the introduction of the winter fuel payment, according to ground-breaking new research by the charity Age UK.
The new research shows the 50% decrease is equivalent to preventing the deaths of 12,000 older people every year that would have otherwise perished during the winter months.  By controlling temperature change and household spending on energy, researchers have concluded that the cash benefit has had a really significant impact on helping many older people survive the winter months.
Caroline Abrahams, Charity Director at Age UK said: “Today, a toxic combination of high energy prices, coupled with poorly insulated homes, means millions of older people are unable to afford to heat their homes to sufficient temperatures to keep themselves consistently warm and well.  This new Age UK research indicates that the winter fuel payment is an important weapon in the battle against winter illness and avoidable deaths.
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WDH says: It is reassuring to know that many lives are saved every year due to winter fuel payments, which were introduced in 1997/1998.  However, there are still around 25,000 people who die each year from cold weather – that’s one person aged over 65 every seven minutes.  Encouragingly, the number of people affected by excess winter deaths in Wakefield is lower than the national picture, with 142.
Apart from people losing their lives in winter months, there is also a clear financial price to pay, in terms of increased pressure on local authorities, the NHS and the social care system.  Alone the cost of cold homes to the NHS is an estimated £1.36 billion every year.
With more than 13 million families losing over £200 a year due to overpriced variable rate energy tariffs, it is time energy providers took responsibility. Energy tariffs should change automatically based on usage rather than consumers having to find the cheapest tariff.  Early reports from the Competition and Markets Authority indicate that more than 95% of dual-fuel customers of the big firms would have saved money by switching tariffs or suppliers between 2012 and 2014.
We need all the political parties to commit in helping those that are affected in their national infrastructure plans.  No older person should worry that they could die from the cold in their own home and if enough resources are invested in energy efficiency they would not have to worry.

Council tax becomes most common debt problem, charity says

Council tax debt has overtaken credit card arrears to become the most common financial issue for British households, according to Citizens Advice.
The charity expects it will provide support for 191,400 council tax debt issues in 2014/2015, a 20% rise on the previous year.  Over the same period, debt problems with credit cards are expected to fall by 12% to 155,700, with unsecured loan, overdraft debts and mortgage problems also falling.
Citizens Advice Chief Executive Gillian Guy said: “Households’ financial recovery will not happen overnight.  The improving economy, rise in employment and price reductions for some day to day costs is good news for many people but it is important to remember that this is set against a back drop of six years of financial difficulties.
There is a concerning shift in the kind of debt problems people are getting into.  The mainstream debt problems of the credit crunch, from credit cards to loans, are morphing into even more troubling problems.”
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WDH says: Since government funding for council tax support schemes was reduced in 2013 and budgets were devolved to local authorities, 281 councils across the country have reduced the support they offer.  These cuts have been very wide reaching and have affected far more people than the bedroom tax. According to the New Policy Institute, 2.3 million low income families affected by the cuts now have to find an average of £2.86 extra each week of which 11% are also suffering from loss of income due to the bedroom tax.
In Wakefield around 31,000 people receive council tax support, with a working age claimant typically now having to pay at least 30% of their bill.  Welfare reforms have had a major impact on our tenants with just over 4,000 currently affected by the bedroom tax, many living on a financial knife edge.
With nearly 200,000 people contacting the Citizens Advice service for help with debt issues relating just to council tax, it is clear that welfare changes are having a massive effect on households already struggling to get by.  As government funding for councils decrease and a cap on council tax rises, the number of families affected by council tax support cuts is likely to increase.
UK unemployment falls to 1.86 million

The number of people out of work in the UK fell by 97,000 to 1.86 million in the three months to December, according to the Office for National Statistics (ONS).
The unemployment rate now stands at 5.7% of the adult working population, while the employment rate, or level of people in work, was 73.2%, its joint highest rate. Employment increased by 103,000 to close to 31 million, the highest since records began in 1971.  Meanwhile, the number of people claiming Jobseeker's Allowance (JSA) fell 38,600 in January to 823,000, the 27th straight monthly fall.
Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith said: "The jobs-led recovery is changing people's lives for the better on a daily basis."
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WDH says:  The overall fall in unemployment for 27 consecutive months is encouraging.  However, the picture in the Wakefield district tells a different story – the number of JSA claimants increased by 297 to 4,967, while the number of NEETs (not in employment, education or training) increased from 4.1% to 4.5% during the same period.
Figures from the ONS show nationally there are 188,000 18 to 24 year olds who have been unemployed for more than 12 months.  Despite the figure being down by 10% in four years, it is still lagging behind the fall in unemployment across all other ages, which is down by nearly 25%.
While the government has launched several programmes over the last few years, such as the Work Programme and the Youth Contract, it is questionable on how successful these programmes have been.
To tackle the issue of unemployment in the district, we want to see more people being helped to get ‘work ready’ and schools need to be preparing students with improved vocational skills, and not simply judge the academic achievements of their students.  This will ensure that they have the right skills to gain and sustain employment and have addressed other issues that might have prevented them from working.
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