As criticism mounts for the government’s controversial new “bedroom tax” policy, we asked Rob Warm from the National Housing Federation what the bedroom tax means for families in the Yorkshire and Humber region:
“How many bedrooms do you have? Do your children have their own room? Are you disabled and have an extra room, allowing your partner to get some much-needed sleep when your condition causes you to have a fretful night? Well if the answer is yes, and you live in social housing, then you are possibly facing a cut in your benefits.
The bedroom tax is a bad policy. It makes no sense. The main stated drivers of the policy are to save money and to make better use of existing housing stock. It does neither. In economic terms it could cost the taxpayer more. In human terms the cost is higher – with some of the most vulnerable people and families in our region falling into debt and possibly losing their homes.
According to the Government’s own estimates, 80,000 residents in Yorkshire are being impacted by the bedroom tax. That’s 43% of working age Housing Benefit claimants in the region, who on average will lose £13 a week (or £676 a year). The impacts on families, struggling to deal with the rising costs of living is enormous. People who have never been in debt before in their lives are struggling to pay, but, for the first time find themselves in arrears.
We also know that the disabled are disproportionately affected by the bedroom tax. Of the 80,000 affected in Yorkshire, over 50,000 are disabled. To put that in some sort of context, if the Government’s initial £30m Discretionary Housing Payments fund, designed to help in ‘difficult’ cases, was shared equally among disabled people hit by the tax in this region they would each receive as little as 74p a week.
And the impact is not just human. It is also economic. Money that was being spent in local communities, in some of the most fragile economies in the region, is simply vanishing. Across Yorkshire and Humber, millions will be taken out of the poorest areas and weakest economies in the region. The maths is easy – if 80,000 people in Yorkshire and Humber lose on average £13 a week that adds up to £54m a year. Shops that were just about surviving will close. People who were just about managing will find that they can no longer manage – forced into debt or into the arms of unscrupulous lenders.
So why is the Government doing it? The stated reasons are to tackle overcrowding, encourage more efficient use of social housing stock and to save the taxpayer £480m a year. Our own analysis is that that is unlikely to achieve any of those aims.
Let’s take overcrowding and making better use of housing stock. The argument goes that we need to be fair to the many families on waiting lists or who are currently living in overcrowded accommodation. It is not right, say Ministers, the taxpayer should not be subsidising spare rooms at a time of housing crisis.
We would certainly agree that there is a housing crisis in the region. Our most recent Home Truths report shows that there are 272,000 families on social housing waiting lists – that is 1 in 8 households in the region. At the same time, we are not building anything like enough homes to keep pace with the growing need for homes in our region – last year fewer than 10,000 new homes were built whilst around 27,000 new households formed.
But this housing crisis will not be addressed by the bedroom tax because the fundamental problem is consistently failing to build enough homes, not how we use the stock we currently have. This means that one of the main issues facing families, hit by the bedroom tax and being told to move or face a cut to their benefits, it that there is simply nowhere to move to. Even the Government has acknowledged that there are insufficient smaller properties to house people affected by the bedroom tax even if they wanted to move.
For example, we know that nationally there are around 180,000 2 bedroom households under-occupying who the Government believes should move to a 1 bed. However, we also know that only 85,000 one bedroom properties in the social sector become vacant each year. Many of these will be let to people on that ever lengthening waiting list, so wouldn’t be available anyway, but even ignoring that fact that leaves 100,000 households with nowhere to go.
The only place that people will be able to move to will be the more expensive private rented sector – where rents are higher, with the taxpayer footing the bill. So a policy designed to save money could actually end up costing the public purse more. This is crazy economics.
But what about the overcrowded households? Well in Yorkshire and Humber families with a spare room outnumber overcrowded families by over three to one so thousands will be hit by the bedroom tax despite there being no local need for them to move. The mismatch between people living in overcrowded homes who need to swap with those who have a spare room works only on paper and nationally. In reality, to make it work you would have to move thousands of families thousands of miles.
So this is a policy that makes neither economic nor human sense. People are being given a false choice – “move or see your benefits cut”. But actually when families try and exercise this choice, they find that there is nowhere for them to move to.
David Cameron, faced with weekly tales of those affected at Prime Minister’s Questions has regularly replied that he will look at individual cases. The problem that he doesn’t seem to acknowledge is that they are all individual cases – in this region every single 80,000 of them.”
Guest blog by Rob Warm, Yorkshire and Humberside Lead manager, National Housing Federation
For more information on the impact of the government’s welfare reform policy, follow the work of Involve’s Action Trackers project.