Derry & Strabane call for Mortgage Interest scheme loans to become grants

Derry City and Strabane District council have called for the Department for Communities (DfC) and Department for Work and Pensions to reduce the qualifying period for Support for Mortgage Interest from 39 weeks during the cost of living crisis.

They also called for it to be reinstated as a non-repayable grant instead of a loan and to allow working households on Universal Credit to be able to claim support.

Council will also write to Land and Property Services to request they consider the appropriateness of enforcement and court action against ratepayers struggling to pay bills during the cost of living crisis.

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Some councillors pointed the finger of blame firmly at the Tory government and the DUP, as Aontú councillor Emmet Doyle brought the motion forward to full council.

Mortgage bills.

The Ballyarnett councillor said: “This is a further step by Aontú to try and support people across the North who are struggling with the evident cost of living crisis, homeowners in particular and mortgage payers have been largely left behind by schemes that have been devised either at Westminster or Stormont. There is one glimmer of hope if you want to call it that in the form of the Mortgage Interest Scheme.

“Effectively what this motion is for is to acknowledge that whilst this is technically a loan scheme, you don’t need to pay this back unless selling or transferring ownership of a property, but more importantly for people who are struggling for example and for many of our own residents who would be in negative equity, they will have nothing to pay back from this scheme.

“It’s important to point out that the criteria for engaging in this scheme at the present moment in time requires applicants to be on certain benefits for 39 weeks. At the moment given the struggles many of our residents are facing and given that there are pressing financial demands on most households we feel that 39 weeks is far too long for anyone to wait for any kind of mortgage assistance.”

He added that there were people at the moment ‘down to their last shilling at the end of the month’ trying to pay increased energy and food bills.

Emmet Doyle.

“What we are asking is that we write to LPS on behalf of our constituents because court action is not the right way to engage with people who are doing their very best to manage the implications of economic forces that are well outside of their control.”

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“As a council we should be saying to LPS that they should be working with people as much as possible and taking into consideration there are people, for their economic future, rates are not a priority at the moment when it comes to families who are using food banks and cannot physically feed members of their own family.”

Supporting the motion, Alliance councillor Phillip McKinney appealed to the DfC and the LPS to reconsider the situation ‘as soon as they can to try and alleviate some of the pressure on these people who are being driven to despair’.

Speaking for People Before Profit, councillor Maeve O’Neill said they welcomed any measure ‘that’s going to help people through the cost of living crisis’.

Laying the blame with the Tory government, Sinn Féin councillor Dan Kelly said: “This motion seeks to mitigate over a decade of Tory austerity and financial mismanagement, coupled with Brexit and a more recent shambolic economic and energy policy failings which have all coalesced in these increased bank interest rates which have led to this dire financial situation for people across out district.

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“The blame for this economic mess lies squarely with the Tory government in London. People shouldn’t be fooled into thinking this situation is anything other than deliberate policy outcomes.”

Making a short amendment to the motion, SDLP councillor Sean Mooney commented: “When I was looking into this, prior to April 6, 2018 this facility was a grant rather than a loan and it was changed three or four years ago and at the time the UK government were saying that using it as a grant was unsustainable.

“Now it’s probably timely to look at it due to the cost of living crisis and what residents are going through. It may be viable to change it from a loan back to a grant which would be a better facility to assist our residents.

“Those residents who are on Universal credit but are working aren’t able to access this scheme which seems to me to be absurd and I would call on that to be looked at.”

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Referring to a recent meeting he and Councillor Kelly had attended with Land and Property Services, UUP Alderman Darren Guy explained they had been told the most important bill of your monthly budget is the rates bill.

“We were told your rates bill always needs to be paid,” he said. “Your mortgage you can talk to your mortgage provider and get help if you have gone behind in your payments, as long as you are paying the interest but if you aren’t paying your rates they will always look for it back. They will only ever come along and give you a new payment plan which means you will be paying extra.”

Alderman Keith Kerrigan stated the DUP’s support for the motion stating ‘whatever can be done to assist people should be done’.

Independent councillor Raymond Barr urged some caution saying: “I support the motion but it brings into focus the problem that this council is going to face in the not too distant future when it comes round to striking a new rate. This cost of living crisis is not going to end any time soon and it will be incumbent on this council to prioritise and possibly suspend some of their more established events.”

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The final speaker, Sinn Féin councillor John McGowan gave his support stating that it could be avoided.

“This has come around from a lot of turbulence of what the Tories have been doing in Westminster for 12 years. There’s a political party here today that backed the mini budget with full support and went to the press and said how great it was. That has cost thousands of families across the North – for some it’s two, four, six hundred pounds extra on their mortgage and it has also cost this council.”

“The decision at Westminster has cost this council £619,000 in extra borrowing. So when people talk about the working poor and they say it’s costing people, the blame for this is with the Tories and also the DUP. They clearly backed that budget which caused the turbulence in the market.”

The substantive motion passed unanimously.

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Gillian Anderson

Local Democracy Reporter