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  • Published in Analysis

The bedroom tax has disappeared from the front pages of the newspapers just as the human cost is becoming all too clear

Iain Duncan Smith

In April, the bedroom tax was front page news across all the main newspapers and a leading story on television. The news has moved on while the real impact of the Tax has become increasingly clear yet largely unreported in the mainstream outlets. The time has come to put the bedroom tax back on the top of the agenda and to illustrate the vast human cost of this vicious policy.

The main aim of this policy is very clear. The first objective is about dealing with the issue of under-occupancy in social housing at a time when there is a real problem with overcrowding. The second main aim is to tackle the unaffordable housing budget, which is running at £23.6 bn per year. It has cut the amount of benefit that people can get if they are deemed to have a spare bedroom in their council or housing association home. The definition of ‘spare’ is wide: children are expected to share until they are 10, or 16 if they are the same gender, while only disabled people who need non-resident overnight care will be allowed to keep a bedroom for their carer. The cost of the spare bedroom is 14% benefit cut (£12 per week), or 25% (£22 per week) for two. 

Under-occupancy

The National Housing Federation has analysed the impact of the bedroom tax across Merseyside by collecting data from 18 Housing Associations that collectively own more than 130,000 properties. The initial data shows that 26,500 homes were impacted by the bedroom tax yet only 155 households have managed to move to smaller properties. This illustrates the first key problem, which is that there are simply not enough one or two bedroom homes available, especially in the North, for this to work. It is estimated that in the North West, the number of households hit by the bedroom tax outnumber those living in overcrowded accommodation by 4 to 1. This means people will be moving homes when there is no local, logical reason for this to happen.

The inhumane madness of the whole project only gets worse. If just 10% of households in the Merseyside were to request smaller accommodation, the outcome would actually be to increase the social housing waiting list by 5.6%, the polar opposite of the expressed intention. In South Teesside, it has been estimated that it would take 37 years to move all under occupying households into one bedroom accommodation given the shortage of this type of property. The other alternative is to move them to private accommodation, which would cost £500,000 per year which is far greater than the cost of keeping them in their current homes.

The final, twisted irony is that landlords have preferred to rent houses rather than have them lying empty. Yet with the introduction of the bedroom tax, social landlords can’t lease them out due to under occupancy. In Norris Green, in Liverpool, this has led to ‘tinning up’ as houses get boarded. Instead of under occupancy, there is a growing problem of no occupancy, which can only exacerbate the current housing crisis. This also means that the area goes into physical decline due to the destruction of local communities. 

The Housing Budget

The bedroom tax is supposed to help bring down the housing budget. Yet all the initial indicators show that in fact the tax will end up costing local councils huge amounts of money. In East Ayrshire, it is estimated that the number of households in rent arrears has tripled to 75% since the introduction of the tax. The estimated cost to the council is around £500,000 per year. It is estimated that across Merseyside, the estimated cost for this financial year to all Housing Associations could be around £22.9 million. This money would allow for the building of 250 new homes, which would have a far bigger impact on the housing crisis and boost the local economy. In Leeds, the estimated shortfall due to rent arrears comes in at around £1m for the year, which will have a massive impact on the number of properties that can be built and successfully maintained in the future. Again, it is clear that bedroom tax will fail to achieve its own aims.

The human cost

The human cost, as predicted, has been incredibly high and this should be reported on the front pages of all the mainstream media as the cost has fallen on the poorest in society. In Merseyside alone, in one month, 14,197 households got into arrears and this was the first time for 6,000 households. This leaves families with making choices between paying their rent, paying their bills and eating. This has led to a huge rise in people using food banks and large numbers have had to open to deal with the demand across Merseyside alongside furniture and school uniform recycling schemes.

The human cost for disabled households has been huge and remains a national scandal that the media has ignored. In Merseyside, it is estimated 19,055 disabled households have been affected and they will lose in total £13.872 million per year. Many of these households live in specially adapted homes with widened doorways, hand rails, additional rooms for vital equipment and carers or walk in showers. To move people from these homes will cause huge levels of personal distress and will almost certainly mean that the new, smaller properties will have to be adapted and this will only increase the cost (average grant for adaption stands at £6,500).

Individual stories of hardship and stress are everywhere in relation to this callous tax, and those stories need to be told. In a recent article, beautifully written by Alison Green, she describes the feelings that the bedroom tax have raised in her: ‘Overnight, the house became a disturbing combination of home, prison, hiding place and guilty under-occupier's hoard of spare rooms. I feel constantly sick with fear.’ 

The fightback

This tax will not solve the overcrowding problem or reduce the housing budget, in fact on the initial evidence it is likely to do the opposite. At the same time, it is an all-out vicious attack on the poorest and most vulnerable in society that is causing huge personal suffering and the breakdown of local communities. It is time to put the failures and the human cost of the bedroom tax back at the top of the agenda to show how this Government is both incompetent and willing to sacrifice ordinary working class families at the altar of austerity.

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