The bedroom tax. Apart from the financial and social problems it will create, I couldn’t help wondering how it could be expected achieve anything other than making a large number of people poorer. There have been so many personal stories, particularly involving disability but the question I kept coming back to was, what the hell is the point? That’s what sent me looking for more information. The Government’s stated aim is not to reallocate resources more effectively but to cut the cost of housing benefit. The fact that this change is only being put in place for working age people in receipt of housing benefit underlines this point. Retired people who are underoccupying are completely unaffected. A property is underoccupied if there are any bedrooms left over after:-
A. an adult couple sharing one room
B. two mixed sex children under 10 sharing
C. one or two same sex children under 21 sharing.
There are rules about the number of nights in a year someone lives in the property so university students living part of the year away from home or an adult child working away (eg. servicemen) wouldn’t be entitled to a room to come home to. For parents with joint residence or overnight contact with their children after a relationship breakdown, the answer is apparently that their children can sleep on a sofa bed. So, the very definition of under occupancy hurts parents of students, servicemen & (largely) fathers who want a relationship with their kids. The Government that talks about fairness in the context of graduates having to move in with their parents wants to penalise those very parents while their children do degrees if those parents happen to be on lower incomes. The Government’s stance is also at odds with its stated belief in the importance of stability and community. Families with boys and girls will, now and then again when their children reach the age of 10, potentially face the disruption of moving to a new school catchment area. The fairness comes shining through…
I took a look at North Herts Homes response to the Consultation on underoccupancy to find out more. North Herts excludes Stevenage and is the very small tip of the iceberg, being a small and relatively well off area. In 2010 approximately 1400 (non-privately owned) households of working age in North Herts were underoccupying. Although this is a fairly small statistical sample, I decided to blog on North Herts because North Herts Homes took its obligations seriously and commissioned a comprehensive report (nb. Pdf) through Cambridge Centre for Housing and Planning Research as a response to the Government’s consultation. I think social landlords are probably right to take reasonable measures to redistribute social housing stock but the bedroom tax will achieve very little in this respect. In its introduction the NHH paper explains:
“from April 2013 social tenants of working age will only be able to claim housing benefit for the size of home they are deemed to need. The majority of social tenants receive housing benefit and many start to under-occupy homes when their children leave home which can be some years before they retire. This means that there will potentially be large numbers of tenants unable to afford their rent unless they can move to smaller homes.It is therefore extremely timely to start to look to improving systems for downsizing now, ahead of the housing benefit cuts.”
That sounds very much like “how are we going to clean up after the Government” to me. NHH say that they don’t consider the real problem with allocation of housing stock to lie in underoccupancy by one bedroom and explain why:
“A household with one more bedroom than they would require to meet this standard is therefore “under-occupying” by one bedroom. However, this situation is extremely common and occurs even among many social tenants who have recently been allocated their property. For instance, many housing associations allocate a three bedroomed property to a household with a boy and a girl even if both are under ten, to avoid later overcrowding when one of them reaches the age of ten. Similarly, a household with two or more children each with their own bedroom are unlikely to regard themselves as under-occupying, regardless of the age or sex of their children. In older age groups too, people often like to have a spare room for visiting relatives. In North Hertfordshire (as is common elsewhere) households downsizing from a four bedroomed property would be allowed a two bedroomed home, though they remain technically under-occupying by one room unless they have children.”
“Extremely common”. NHH holds perfectly reasonable views on allocation and underoccupying, and says other social landlords do as well. Is the Government going to penalise the individuals allocated houses based on the common sense approach of social landlords laid out by NHH in this Report? Well…yes…obviously, if the individuals in question are working age. NHH decided to focus its attention on households underoccupying by two or more bedrooms, because it feels that that’s where the practical unfairness lies, where housing stock could properly be redistributed.
In 2003, NHH bought up the Council’s housing stock so the number of people living in properties owned by social landlords in North Herts has increased quite dramatically since the 2001 census. In 2001, 29% of Council tenants were underoccupying by two or more rooms and 29.4% were underocupying by 1 or more rooms. Meanwhile, 21.5% of NHH tenants were underoccupying by two or more rooms and 33.5% were underoccupying by one or more room. In the East of England the social landlord figures were 14.8% underoccupying by two or more rooms and 26% underoccupying by one or more room. In England as a whole, the figures were 14.6% and 25.7%. In England alone 784,308 people were underoccupying council houses by one or more bedrooms and 318,191 people were underoccupying other social landlord accomodation by one or more bedroom in 2001 (those figures include people aged over 65). 44.9% of all people underoccupying in North Herts in 2001 were over retirement age. None of them are affected by the new bedroom tax because only working age people receive housing benefit. Studies since 2001 (Survey of English Housing (SEH15) and English Housing Survey (2008)) show the figures on underoccupancy as a proportion of all council and social landlord housing are pretty much unchanged between 2001 and 2008. The timing of the census means that NHH had to use information from the 2001 census and then use other more recent but less comprehensive reports to determine the extent of underoccupancy across the country and in NHH.
I also looked at a second social landlord in North Herts, Howard Cottage. Howard Cottage is the UK’s oldest housing association and has 1500 homes. As far as I can see, Howard Cottage haven’t produced a formal, detailed response to the bedroom tax like NHH did but they did put out a newsletter last summer to their tenants, still hoping that the reforms might not be implemented in their entirety, saying:
“I can see why the Government is doing this. But there is still a mismatch between what people need and what’s available in their local area –effectively, they may be very willing to move, but without a property to move into, they are stuck. The National Housing Federation has been campaigning to increase the under-occupancy limit from one to two bedrooms, meaning people could under-occupy by one bedroom and still receive benefit.”
Howard Cottage tenants are my neighbours. I mean that literally. They own properties in my street and the streets either side and several streets beyond that. I’m pretty sure they own the houses that back on to mine. They own homes in the streets that I hobbled along in Windowdressing Politik. Within metres of my home on April 1 people will be making “tough choices”, to borrow a favourite phrase from the Coalition. Although “choice” seems a ridiculous word to use in the circumstances. The Government says people have one but coercion would be more appropriate and make no mistake. They’re not making those “choices” to redistribute housing stock. They’re making them because the Government wants to cut benefits. I believe there is a strong ideological motive too. The Government would apparently like me to say my neighbours don’t deserve what I have. I won’t. They do.
I don’t have empirical evidence for my belief that there is a nasty underlying ideology at play, or at least not the extent of the nastiness but here’s where I’m coming from. My last home was a railway workers cottage built in the 1890s. That road was another mix of private and social landlord housing. In the 1901 census it had nine people living in it. Since then, the second bedroom has been cut in half to make room for the luxury of an indoor bathroom. That left the second bedroom with just enough room for a single bed and a bookcase. The same can be said of many Victorian two-up two-downs. Some built a bathroom onto the kitchen but many cut that second bedroom in half. Bunk beds would be the only answer. (Who pays for the bunk beds if a family with two children moves into a similar property?) My current house was built in the 1920s. A Labour doorstepper told me that in the 1950s this was a slum. The old timers who’ve lived here since then describe rat infestations. One’s earliest memory is rats being burned just after they moved in. I know it might sound like hyperbole but I can’t get the thought out of my mind that the Government doesn’t believe people on Housing Benefit deserve these homes and ultimately doesn’t give a damn if we turn back towards serious levels of overcrowding. They want the private sector to make as much money as possible off people like me and they want people who need the support of Housing Benefit to live in the poorest possible accomodation the Government can get away with. In this respect, I believe they’re worse than Thatcher, even thought her aspirational programme of Council house purchasing is a serious contributing factor to our current lack of suitable council/social landlord accommodation and is a good lesson in how far ahead governments need to plan when setting policy. At least she was offering a carrot with that policy though. With the current Government, it’s all stick. Thatcher wasn’t driving people out of their council houses. I believe the current Government would gladly turn people out of their council and social landlord-owned houses to free them up for the private sector and that its idea of reasonable living standards would be unrecognisable to people like Ebeneezer Howard (who pioneered Letchworth Garden City).
There is also another issue at play here. The fact is that the bedroom tax penalises both unemployed people and low paid workers but the headlines, by focussing entirely on the bedroom tax, have missed the issue of allocation rules to favour employed applicants for housing (Ed Miliband supports this policy too), which would hammer the unemployed and disabled people (who the Government repeatedly claims aren’t being targeted by bedroom tax where they’re unable to work). Once again, we are faced with the concept of the deserving poor. The Government’s Consultation included these two questions:
“12. Does your allocation scheme already provide for some priority to be given to people who are in work, seeking work, or otherwise contributing to the community? If so, how does your scheme provide for this?
13. If not, do you intend to revise your allocation scheme to provide for more priority to be given to people who are in work, seeking work, or otherwise contributing to the community? If so, what changes might you be considering?”
Shelter’s Response to the Government consultations says:
“We are concerned that reasonable preference could be further undermined by the guidance on giving priority to those in low paid employment or employment-related training…or who are deemed to be contributing to the community even where they are not in a reasonable preference category. This creates a further shift towards allocating housing on the basis of whether it is considered deserved rather than needed. There are many reasons that people who fall within the medical or welfare reasonable preference categories will be unable to work, such as serious illness, disability, age-related infirmity or caring for a relative. People may not be undertaking formal voluntary work but may well be contributing to their community in informal ways, such as providing support to neighbours.”
So what will happen next? We don’t have enough houses of the right size to make this work. You already know that. North Herts Homes are clearly trying to find a way to help their tenants and it sounds very much as if they believe they will have to address underoccupancy among pensioners in order to redistribute their housing stock. House swap programmes are all well and good but they won’t help if the houses aren’t the right size. I’ve already seen that one social landlord elsewhere is removing box/cot rooms from its definition of bedrooms to limit the harm done and this is an important measure for houses originally built without indoor plumbing. As for Howard Cottage, many of its houses were deliberately intended to provide a better quality of life than this Government seems to consider fit when they were built. Howard Cottage, the oldest housing association in the UK, was a vital part of what made Letchworth Garden City such an important social experiment but the days of improving quality of life and living standards are apparently over. Moving to private rented accommodation does seem a likely choice for some tenants and (as just about everyone has already said) without rent controls that’s likely to push the cost of Housing Benefit up. And what will social landlords do when people start moving out? We’d end up with vacant homes which could be sold off in the end, although I would imagine social landlords will advertise for people currently in privately rented accomodation to apply for the newly vacant properties. Everyone moving will be very hard pressed to find the money for the move and I hope that NHH and others will be able to find a way to help with this. And what will happen to Council tenants outside of North Herts? I suspect it will depend on which political party controls the Council in question. For my money, I think we’re on the road to a rise in the number of households with three generations under one roof, not least because I saw somewhere they’re moving on to a pensioners with a similar, non-housing benefit version of this policy in the not so distant future.
Finally, speaking of ideology, I’m taking odds on how long it takes the tabloids to claim the bedroom tax will lead to an isolated baby boom…think about it. I’m not joking. I honestly think it’s only a matter of time.