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Opinion: Whatever you think of the bedroom tax, the policy is causing problems in practice

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Opinion: Whatever you think of the bedroom tax, the policy is causing problems in practice

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Published by Max Salsbury for 24dash.com in Housing and also in Central Government, Communities, Regulation

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Image: Housing via Shutterstock

By Steve Wilcox, former professor of housing policy at the University of York, and author of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation’s bedroom tax report

The government's 'bedroom tax' penalises social housing tenants if they are deemed to be under-occupying their homes - with some losing up to 25% of their housing benefit.

It has now been operational for a year, and the evidence on its impacts in practice is beginning to gather. It has achieved savings for DWP; but rather less than forecast. The numbers of households subject to size criteria benefit limits were lower than anticipated, and are declining – but only partly due to tenant and landlord responses to the size criteria.

Initially the DWP forecast housing benefit savings of £480 million in 2013/14, against which is made provision for £35m – later increased to £55m – for discretionary housing payments for households where the size criteria limits would result in hardship.

Those provisions were particularly aimed at households with a disability living in dwellings specifically adapted to meet their requirements, but more generally available for households where local authorities considered that the size criteria limits were not appropriate to the households circumstances.

From day one the numbers of households impacted were some 100,000 less than the forecast 660,000 – with limited evidence to suggest that landlord and tenant actions in anticipation of the limits were anything more than a very minor contribution to the lower outturn numbers.

By November the numbers subject to the limits had fallen to just under 500,000. About a half of that reduction can be accounted for by tenants moving to smaller accommodation – mainly in the social rented sector, but in some cases to the private rented sector.

A small number of those initially impacted (about 1%) moved off housing benefit as a result of moving into work, or increasing their earnings. However, as this occurred during a period of economic recovery and falling claimant unemployment, and as even in normal times many households work and other circumstances are fluid rather than fixed, it cannot be presumed that those movements into work were necessarily a response to the size criteria limits.

Whatever view is taken of the principles underlying the policy there are a number of aspects of its operation that are clearly problematic. The use of short-term discretionary funds for households with disabilities in adapted dwellings, and where additional rooms are required either because it is not appropriate for a disabled person to share a bedroom, or that space is required for equipment related to their disability, is far from ideal.

The size criteria – which are essentially derived from a 1960 social survey bedroom standard (with minor amendments) - also fail to take any account of bedroom sizes, and assume that any bedroom is available to be shared. But many social sector dwellings have single bedrooms that the statutory overcrowding provisions consider too small to be shared.

A further difficulty is that the policy is inflexible in the face of the varying patterns of housing demand and the size distribution of stock across the regions and countries of Britain. Overall after the first six months of its operation there were some 100,000 tenants who had registered for a move, but were unable to secure a move because of the limited supply of smaller dwellings.

That adjustment is set to take years to resolve, and even longer in those areas where the mismatch between supply and demand for smaller dwellings is at its greatest. Meanwhile the policy has imposed substantial hardship on the tenants unable to move, or where the criteria does not fully recognise their space requirements, and a range of related costs for landlords, as well as rent arrears for about a half of the tenants subject to the limits.    

The size criteria policy accounts for only a very small part of the total £19 billion annual savings to the welfare budget from the range of welfare reforms and cuts; but it has been one of the most controversial elements within those reforms.

Without amendments to deal with the most problematic impacts of the policy, those controversies look set to continue.

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