Friday, 22 March 2013

Bedroom Tax - Some Thoughts

I went to Nottingham's 'Bedroom Tax' demo last week. Saw the odd NCC councillor and apparently at least one MP popped in too.

You might also be aware that NCC has launched it's own petition against it too and, despite the fact that they deserve a long list of "Where were you when...?" questions, I would urge you to sign it.

It's not hard to see NCC's self interest in challenging the bedroom tax. It's implication will result in a rocketing level of arrears for council housing, the financing of which they are responsible for. In addition, the resultant homelessness and mass of downsizing applications will be a nightmare for them to deal with. We'll see how sympathetic they really are when those evicted for rent arrears rock up at the homelessness office and get told that they're intentionally homeless.

So, to those of us who have actually taken a genuine interest in social welfare provision it's no surprise to see them jump on this particular bandwagon when they haven't given a shit about poor people before. But their voice against the bedroom tax will help the campaign, hence my encouragement for you to sign the petition. Just please make sure you sign all the others too.

But, the fact that there has always been a 'bedroom tax' baked into the housing benefit scheme for private tenants, which has been constantly chipped away at by successive Tory AND Labour governments with nary a campaign, nevermind a squeak from NCC before* raises the question as to what is different. After all, ToryDems are using this former advantage for social housing tenants as a justification for bringing the bedroom tax in. This seems to be a significant gap in the campaign to me.

As far as I can see there are two main reasons why applying a bedroom tax to social tenants is worse than applying to private tenants;

1) You have to apply for social housing, satisfy eligibility criteria, usually spend time on a waiting list before being allocated a property. You rarely get very much choice in where you go. As such, you have no control over how many bedrooms you have so introducing a charege for having a 'spare' seems more unjust.

Of course, the flaw in this argument is that, with the total lack of available social housing,along with this country's peculiar obsession with owner-occupation means that those with neither of those options available are flooding the oversubscribed and overpriced private renting sector and any alleged 'choice' is probably somewhat illusory.

2) The continuing disastrous reduction in supply of social housing has meant that it has more and more become an option for the vulnerable alone, rather than a genuine mass option for housing that it used to be. Therefore it follows that an attack on this sector's housing benefit provision is much more likely to hit the vulnerable which, in most people's eyes, is worse than hitting fit, healthy people should just get on with it.

But again, that theory falls down due to that lack of supply of social housing has meant that vulnerable people fall through the gaps and are stuck with the private sector. In fact, because owner-occupation does look like a much better deal than private renting for solvent, healthy people, you have to wonder if most of those left in the private rented sector do have some element of vulnerability.

So to my mind, those two above reasons set out why a bedroom tax applied to social tenants is worse than one applied to private tenants. My caveats simply meant that, like most generalisations, the differences do not hold true 100% and are less likely to hold true as time goes on and the post WW2 social contract is progressively undermined. If you have other ideas please do add them to the comments.

So I think the anti bedroom tax campaigners need to make these points, otherwise to be consistent we need to also campaign against size related benefit restrictions whatever the sector, or be accused of double standards by the ToryDems. Such accusations, if they stick, can often be the death knell of a campaign.

Addendum; It appears that NCC is reviewing all its housing stock to identify any properties with rooms of less than 50 sq ft.Such small rooms will no longer be counted as bedrooms. They are also re-classifying all high rise flats as 1 bed properties, as they are only available to single and couples without children. Of course, a side effect of this welcome application of modern housing standards is that these properties will be less likely to be caught by the bedroom tax. Credit where it's due etc...

*Let's not forget that NCC, like many councils, has made the situation worse for private sector tenants by its monumental failure to administer Discretionary Housing Payments properly. The increased DHP provision to offset the bedroom tax is a drop in the ocean but I'll be keeping an eye on whether it is used properly.

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