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Does the bedroom tax make any more sense than did the daylight robbery of the window tax?

2012 November 24

Last time I was in Edinburgh I noticed a Georgian building with eight real windows, upstairs and down, and four blocked-up ones by their side. They turned out to be an architectural remnant from the notorious window tax introduced by William III in 1696 which slapped a charge of four shillings on properties with ten to twenty windows and double that for those with more than twenty. This daylight robbery seemed like a good idea at the time, so much so that it was only repealed in 1851.

Doubtless the current Coalition’s “bedroom tax” seemed a good wheeze to David Cameron. Faced with an annual Housing Benefit bill of £21bn the Government has decided to “encourage” council house and housing association tenants who have a spare bedroom to move to smaller houses to free up larger homes for larger families. Either that or pay a bedroom tax – of an extra 14 per cent in rent on one spare bedroom and 25 per cent on two.  This would have the double bonus of getting big families out of cramped housing waiting-list accommodation and/or slashing the amount paid out in benefits. And after all, the free-market ideologues argued, people in the private sector have to match where they live to what they can afford.

So, from April, Housing Benefit claimants who have more bedrooms than they reasonably need – estimated at around a third of claimants – will either have to move, pay more rent, get a lodger, cut their spending or earn more. If only life were so simple.

There are a number of problems with this. For a start the definition of “under-occupying” , to use the official bureaucrat-speak, means that siblings are not allowed separate bedrooms till the age of 10, for brother and sister, or till 16 if they are the same sex. The rule has no flexibility for areas of the country with higher unemployment or where smaller houses are not available – meaning there is nowhere to “downsize” to nor the means of earning the extra rent. In Chester-le-Street, for example, there are 600 people under-occupying but only 41 one-bedroomed council properties. Stockton has 153 under-occupiers and zero one-bedroomed flats.

In Wales of the 40,000 people affected by the changes some 4,000 will have to move into the more expensive private sector as there is no smaller social housing.  Charities and housing associations there are warning of an impending explosion in homelessness among families who already have difficulty making their paltry weekly budget balance. Telephone advice hotlines are taking hundreds of calls a week.

The truth is that no-one is sure how this will play out, which is which one Labour politician has called it a “grotesque experiment” and a “a callous piece of public policy” which will put people into debt and fracture communities. It is hard to disagree. No exemptions have been made for the disabled, apart from those who need an extra room for a dialysis machine. Foster carers have found foster children are not counted as part of the household for bedroom entitlement; the Government has said they can apply for £5m extra discretionary housing funding from their local council, but carers say councils have been using the money for other purposes. The rules ignore the needs of divorced parents with part-time access to their children.

The news that David Cameron has appointed the controversial Australian political consultant Lynton Crosby to run the Conservatives 2015 general election campaign has brought claims that the Tories will once again become “the nasty party”. Those poor people about to be hit by the bedroom tax may feel they already are.

The Church Times

One Response
  1. wilfred overson permalink
    February 4, 2013

    I previously lived in a 1 bedroom flat which was privately rented, the cost of the monthly rent was £525. I was then able to move into a 3 bed house, again privately rented at a cost of £500 per month, so could somebody please tell me why I should move? Also the council here in Exeter are more interested in building student accomodation rather than social housing. I have since discovered that a new housing estate at an area just outside Exeter known as Cranbrook, most of the property there has been sold to West Midlands council to be used by people who live in that area and not people from Devon.

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