Swindon Council has made its first estimate of how many tenant households will suffer the ‘bedroom tax’; the cut in the level of housing benefit that they will receive if they are considered to have more rooms than they ‘need’. (see https://keepourcouncilhomes.wordpress.com/2012/04/21/campaigning-against-the-bedroom-tax/)

The Council’s initial estimate is that 1,353 households are ‘underoccupying’ a home considered too big for them. Of this number 775 households would have to be downsized to a one bedroom property, 547 to a two bedroom home, 29 a 3 bed, and 1 each require a 4 and a 5 bed place. Only 54 of these have thus far requested a transfer. This represents around 34% of working age tenants claiming housing benefit. It’s anticipated that tenants will face a cut of £11.10 a week if they are occupying a 2 bedroom flat, £11.29 if in a 2 bedroom house and £12.22 in a 3 bedroom house. Those claimants ‘underoccupying’ by two or more bedrooms will, on average lose £21.81 a week.

Tenants don’t have to move, of course, but for people on the breadline these sums are a lot of money. How many can take the loss and stay where they are remains to be seen. However, even if tenants apply for a move to a smaller property, the Council will be unable to accommodate them straight away. Yet such is the inhumanity of this government that it is insistent that even those people who have asked for a move will be penalised if the Council is unable to offer them a move.

Housing professionals and tenants warned that there was a large mismatch between what people are supposed to ‘need’ and what is available. For instance, in Swindon the number of one bed tenancies let out last year was only 104. So to be able to transfer 775 households into one bed properties would take more than seven years, although that’s only if nobody on the waiting list is given a home in that time.

The number of households on the waiting list who qualify for a one bedroom home, taking only those who are in Bands A and B, that is ‘in urgent need’ and ‘in need’, was in January of this year 3,663. (There are more than 2,000 others considered in ‘low need’). Add the 775 to that and it means that to accommodate all these people would take more than 40 years – if the waiting list didn’t increase . Of course, the waiting list is liable to rise even further given that there is an annual shortage of new affordable homes in Swindon of more than 800.

When we look at the 2 bed waiting list we find that there are 996 parent(s) who qualify for 2 beds (this includes 109 transfer requests). On top of that there are 1499 parent(s) with 2 children who according to the Council’s list qualify for 2 or 3 bedroom homes (whether they would qualify for 2 or 3 depends on the age and sex of the children). To this must be added the 547 existing tenant households who would need to downside to a two bedroom home if they were not to suffer an HB cut.

The declared purpose of the “bedroom tax” is to “make better use” of existing housing stock. The government was warned that the mismatch of house sizes and the numbers who would have to move meant that the policy was bound to fail. As you can see from these Swindon figures such a policy cannot work, because we don’t have enough homes of the right size for existing tenants, never mind the people on the list.

Whilst the HB cut is unjust and punitive, the ‘bedroom standard’ on which it is based is crass. It takes no account of the normal life cycle which tenants go through. For instance, it means that a couple only qualify for one bedroom. If applied rigidly it would mean tenants would have to make a number of moves in the course of their lifetime. For instance, a young couple would be given a one bedroom flat. As soon as they have a child they would have to be found a two bedroom place (if any were available). If they had any more, then at some stage they would have to move again to a 3 or later a 4 bedroom home. When the children fly the nest then the ageing couple would have to be moved again. The very idea of this is not only inhuman but it has overhead costs for the Council. Tenants would be moving about like the proverbial fiddlers elbow. There would be more voids (empty homes which have to be worked on) which means losing rent.

From the point of view of the tenants as human beings they would be treated like peasants who could be moved around at will. These are not just houses though, they are homes in which they have invested time, effort, and expense. They have lived their lives in them. They are invested with memories of their children or a lost partner.

All that this government policy will do is to create anxiety and misery and will burden Councils with extra work. Penalising tenants for the housing shortage is unjust. The blame lies with succeeding governments that have since the 1980’s sold off our housing stock on the cheap and refused to build homes to replace those lost; in the case of Swindon around 7,500.

The shortage of Council housing requires a new Council house building programme on a scale which offers to produce a decline in the waiting list numbers. The shortage is too great to be resolved by shifting around tenants. It is a reflection of the contempt that the government has for Council housing tenants that they can treat them in such a callous fashion.

Martin Wicks

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