A SERIES of high profile protests are being planned across the region amid growing anger over the Government's so-called bedroom tax.
Tenants and housing association bosses representing 90,000 residents will hold a summit on Teesside tomorrow (Tuesday, February 26) to plan the next move in what could become a national campaign against the "tax" - a cut in housing benefit for people with spare rooms.
Campaigners elsewhere in the region are organising a silent vigil in Durham City next month, with 100 people already having signed up to take part.
Tomorrow's summit at Wynyard Park, near Billingham, has been organised by Coast & Country housing association, which owns and manages 10,000 homes in Redcar and Cleveland.
Representatives of 11 other housing associations will attend to hear from tenants who will be affected.
The "bedroom tax" aims to shave about £500m a year off the housing benefits bill, and is intended to ease overcrowding by encouraging people living in social housing to downsize to smaller properties if they have spare rooms.
The penalty for not downsizing will be a cut in housing benefit ranging from 14 per cent for one extra bedroom to 25 per cent where there are two rooms.
Iain Sim, chief executive of Coast & Country, said the "bedroom tax" was widely perceived as targeting the poorest and most vulnerable in society.
"When the pasty tax came in there was a huge public outcry but this is nastier," he said. "We have gone from the pasty tax to the nasty tax.
"Our tenants have been coming to us and saying they don't feel they have a voice. They are very angry, very concerned and the feel that nobody is listening to them."
He said 1,860 Coast & Country tenants are officially under-occupying, according to the Government's rules, but if they all had to be re-housed in smaller private sector properties it would increase the housing benefit bill for Redcar and Cleveland by almost £500,000 because of higher private rents.
There is also a chronic shortage of smaller properties to rent, he said.
The Durham City protest is one of 15 being organised across the country by campaign group Labour Left, and will take place at 1pm on March 16 at a venue yet to be confirmed.
Val Hudson, joint chairperson of the Durham and Tees Valley branch of Labour Left, said there was a "moral outrage" about the proposed benefit cut.
She added: "People who might be separated and whose children come to stay at the weekend or disabled people who may use a second room for a carer, they will all be affected.
"It's an attack on vulnerable people again."
Easington MP Grahame Morris, national chairperson of Labour Left, is planning to attend the Durham protest.
He said that more than 1,300 low income families in his constituency, many of them suffering disabilities as a legacy of the area’s mining history, are facing cuts in benefit of between £13 and £22 per week.
Mr Morris said that the cut in income would drain £150m-a-year from County Durham’s economy.
He said: "This is a huge issue which I would compare to the poll tax."
A Department of Work and Pensions spokesman said: "We need to ensure a better use of social housing when over a quarter of a million tenants are living in overcrowded homes and two million are on housing waiting lists across the country.
"We are providing councils with £155m this year to support people and vulnerable groups who might be affected by these changes."