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Opinion: Bedroom tax a year on – can the evidence speak for itself?

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Opinion: Bedroom tax a year on – can the evidence speak for itself?

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Published by Max Salsbury for 24dash.com in Housing

Alan Humphreys Alan Humphreys

By Alan Humphreys, chief executive, Grand Union Housing Group

We have been determined to walk a careful path on government’s welfare reforms. Whilst we have always had some concerns we have been eager to let the data do the talking. That’s why we have been keen to track the impact of the under occupancy charge (bedroom tax) since its inception in April 2013.

Here and there: the bedroom tax hits home is actually our third report. We have gradually broadened our field of research, beginning in the first report looking at the 460 tenants in Aragon Housing Association who were affected, and assessing how they coped after only 100 days of the bedroom tax. At six months the focus was our whole group, some 770 tenants across Aragon and South Northants Homes. By this time it was clear there had been a spike in arrears and certainly in levels of hardship. Over 200 tenants affected by the bedroom tax, who had not previously been in arrears, were now in debt to their landlord.

One year on, for our latest report, we asked partner associations in Bedfordshire, Northamptonshire and Oxfordshire,  Aldwyck, Howard Cottage, Soha and Daventry District Housing to join us to give a wider perspective of what was happening. We wanted to assess the impact of the welfare changes in a range of rural and semi rural areas rather than large urban areas where there had been so much talk of overcrowding and the need to make better use of the housing stock.

So what picture does the new data paint? It shows that most people who have been affected do not want to or cannot move, either because it is not practical for them to do so or because there is simply not enough smaller homes available. Slightly surprisingly we see that the level of arrears for those affected has reduced slightly or levelled out from the spike we identified in our 6 month report.

That is undoubtedly mainly as a result of associations refocussing resources and investing in additional staff to help those affected. We certainly have. Around 30% of the tenants originally affected by the bedroom tax no longer are: they have either moved or had a change in circumstances. However, 22% of current tenants affected only became affected since April 2013, presumably also due to a change in their personal circumstances. We are also seeing continued under occupancy:  families who are not reliant on Housing Benefit (at the moment) and are currently able to pay the rent in full. The concern here is that their circumstances could also change in the future. It also means that under occupation of social stock is continuing.

Yes there are good news stories which have emerged, such as the vulnerable couple who were unable to manage their large home, who have reluctantly, but successfully downsized with the support of an association’s Incentive Scheme. It’s been rewarding for staff to see a great resolution for customers like them. But there are others’ stories our staff have encountered, like the working single father who doesn’t qualify for a two bedroomed home so his daughter can stay over when she visits at weekends.

Of course what  pure data hides is the disproportionate  impact the bedroom tax is having on a relatively small number of individuals  –  those who, for a variety of reasons, can’t or don’t want to move, maybe because their children are settled at school, maybe because they are reliant on local support  to cope with  health issues or disability. Many are working in low paid and/or part-time jobs, but still need HB to get by. Most are somehow coping, but at what cost? Fuel poverty evidence in our report suggests that one immediate sacrifice is heating their homes.

We will continue to monitor the impact of the welfare changes, and in particular the bedroom tax, and at the same time offer as much support as possible to those affected. We will also continue to  raise housing issues which concern us  to political parties of all persuasions as we lead up to next year’s general election.

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