This centrepiece of welfare reform will cause pain and disruption to the poorest social tenants. But it will also cost the taxpayer more, and do nothing to ease chronic housing pressures
Exactly how disruptive, wretched and illogical is the so-called “spare bedroom tax”, and precisely how much chaos will it inflict on some of the UK’s poorest families when it crashes into their lives in April?
You will recall that this policy, designed supposedly to tackle overcrowding by freeing up scarce larger social housing properties, is a centrepiece of Coalition welfare reform.
By charging tenants for their spare rooms, ministers hope more households will decide to downsize to smaller, more affordable properties, in theory cutting £500m a year off the housing benefit bill. Ministers have doggedly pushed ahead with the policy, despite widespread criticism and two defeats in the Lords.
From April around 670,000 “under-occupying” tenants will have to pay between £11 and £20 a week for bedrooms in their property deemed to be in excess of their needs (or downshift to a smaller property). Lord Freud, the welfare minister, apparently believes spare council house bedrooms are:
a luxury the country can no longer afford.
For a vivid sense of how this policy is likely to play out it is worth reading this compelling post by Duncan Forbes, the chief executive of Bron Afon Community Housing in south Wales. Forbes and 60 of his staff visited tenants in early December to talk to them about the changes, and how they intended to cope. The staff were disturbed by what they found; Forbes collected some of their accounts and published them on Bron Afon’s blog.
Common themes emerge through the various accounts: the huge degree to which families are dependent on spare rooms to accommodate carers, or to support relatives affected by family breakdown; the commonplace acceptance by families that to cope with the shortfall they will have to go without meals; distress that they may have to leave the homes they have lived in for years (in some cases having invested thousands of pounds in them, on decoration or disability adaptations; and anxiety that they will be cut adrift from long established friends and family networks.
These are precisely the human scale consequences that aren’t directly acknowledged in the government’s official impact assessment of the bedroom tax.
Here’s one account, of an ex-serviceman suffering from post-traumatic stress:
He currently lives at the property with one daughter who is hoping to go to university next year. So where he currently under-occupies the property to the tune of one bedroom this is likely to increase later next year. His daughter is worried about him and her decision (whether she even goes on to higher education) is going to be heavily influenced by the effects of the changes to dad’s benefit. His depression is not seen as a disability sufficient to prevent him seeking work so his benefit was cut recently. We talked about how he could manage the additional cost following a cut in his housing benefit, short of stopping eating and heating the home he was unable to identify any other savings. He was resigned to having to move to a smaller property but did not want to do it. The current home is the one he raised his children in, the one his wife shared with him until she died. He was proud of the home and the time, effort and money he had clearly put into it. Leaving that to start again was a thought that (I observed) made him so very anxious and visibly shaken.
Here’s another tenant, who was also anxious:
When I went door knocking I met a lady who is blind and lives in a two-bedroom property. She will get a cut in benefit due to the ‘bedroom tax’. She has lived in her home around 20 years and it has been adapted for her needs. Her neighbour acts as a carer for her too. If she is forced to move because she can’t afford to stay she will have to leave the community she loves because there are no one -bedroom properties in her area. If she moves away she will leave an area she is able to safely travel around because she knows it so well.
Many tenants were already working out what it would take to stay where they are:
I met a couple and their pregnant daughter. During our discussion they understood that they had one spare bedroom at the moment and would be hit by the ‘bedroom tax’. What I found really upsetting was that they had already worked out the only possible solution for them was if they each had two meals less a week they would be able to make up the shortfall! He said this very matter of fact. They do not drink or smoke and this was the only area they could economise on. A pregnant girl having to go without food! I also met another gentleman who said the same – the only area to economise was food!
One of the most distressing aspects is the emotional trauma inflicted on affected individuals, especially by older people affected by the reform:
I visited a lady who is on her own aged 60 in a two-bedroom flat. She will be affected by the ‘bedroom tax’ until May 2015. She was a lovely lady really welcoming. Her flat was beautiful. She explained to me how the spare bedroom was used for her late husband. She cared for him in that bedroom until he sadly passed away. She doesn’t want to leave her home to downsize as she has fond memories of her husband there and also in the surrounding areas are her friends and family. What got to me was she said to me that she is already struggling to make her money stretch but in all seriousness she said she would go without food before falling into arrears. After everything she has faced and after the effort she has put into her home. This was heartbreaking.
Bron Afon, which was created when Torfaen council transferred its social housing stock some years ago, has 8,000 tenants. Of the 3,900 who are of working age, a third (1,300) will be affected by the bedroom tax. Roughly a thousand of these are “under occupying” by one room.
I asked Forbes how he thought affected tenants would respond:
I think people will try and make do and live in penury [rather than move]. But then rent arrears will start creeping up.
Bedroom tax will not be the only burden. When Universal Credit comes in people will move overnight to monthly budgeting, causing a further shock to those used to juggling insecure incomes on a weekly basis. Disability Living Allowance cuts, and incapacity benefit reassessment will further shrink the income of many tenants. Working tax credits are being cut in April, and council tax benefit cuts will add another £5 a week to household costs.
The cumulative effect for some families is going to be phenomenal.
And not in a good way, either. Many families have little in the way of financial resilience: they have no savings or spare cash, says Forbes. If they need to buy a pair of shoes, the money will come out of fuel, food and rent.
Perhaps the most unfair burden is that even if families were to try and downsize, there are virtually no affordable smaller properties any where nearby. Take Blaenavon in the north of the borough: 113 Bron Afon households there are deemed to be under-occupying but there is nowhere to go. There are just 29 one bedroom flats locally, of which just five or six a year become come available. It costs more to rent a private rented sector one bedroom flat in Cardiff or Newport than a three bedroom social home in Blaenavon, points out Forbes, so if the families do move, it will cost the government more in housing benefit.
Such absurdities are common across Wales, he suspects. As for Bron Afon, it has financial contingency plans in place for bad debts and arrears. In a grim foretaste of what is to come, it anticipates having to expand its rent recovery team six fold.
Forbes compares the bedroom tax to a hurricane hitting Torfaen, with all the attendant disruption to families’ health and welfare, and children’s schooling. But it is the sheer perversity of the policy that bewilders him: financially it will cost the government more, both in housing benefit payments and dealing with the longer term impacts of family crisis; and it will do absolutely nothing to solve local housing pressures.
It is a policy that has no logic.