Swindon Conservative Councillors            From Swindon Tenants Campaign Group

Re the ‘bedroom tax’ or ‘under-occupation’ regulations

Dear Councillor

I am writing on behalf of Swindon Tenants Campaign Group in relation to the ‘bedroom tax’ or ‘under-occupation’ regulations. As you know they will come into operation in April. More than 1,100 Council households in Swindon will be affected.

We believe the ‘bedroom tax’ is both unjust and impractical. Unjust because

  • It treats people who are in receipt of housing benefit differently. Working age tenants are subject to the HB cut, whereas senior citizens are not even if they have ‘spare’ rooms.
  • Two thirds of all households affected have at least one disabled person in them.
  • Even if a bedroom is occupied by somebody owing to illness or disability it is still regarded as ‘spare’ and the tenants must suffer the cut in HB.
  • Tenants will have to pay even if they have requested a move, but there is no alternative property available.
  • Tenants who are on Job Seekers Allowance only have £71 a week to live on. They will have to pay combined rent and Council Tax of up to £25 a week out of this pittance. How are they supposed to survive on this? As one tenant said in the Advertiser they will be faced with the choice of “eating or heating”. We already know that there has been an increase of condensation and dampness in Council homes as a result tenants being unable to afford to have the heating on as often as necessary.

It’s impractical because the the rigid application of the ‘bedroom standard’, on which it is based causes over-crowding and will introduce instability in the lives of tenants who are subject to it.

  • Couples only ‘qualify’ for one bedroom. What sense is there giving a young couple a one bedroom home when as soon as they have a child they will have to be found, if available, a two bed property? More children, and they would need a 3 bed house.
  • The ‘bedroom standard’ and the ‘bedroom tax’ take no account of real life circumstances and the usual life cycle that people go through. A single parent or a couple with two children, living in a 3 bed house, will have to ‘downsize’ to a 2 bed one. Yet as soon as one child reached 10 (in the case of different sex) or 16 (same sex), the family will qualify for 3 beds again. Unless they are found one they will be over-crowded. Yet if they move again, they will face having to ‘downsize’ once more when the first child leaves home. The parent/parents will then have to ‘downsize’ to a 1 bed property when the remaining child leaves home. So we have from 3 to a 2, back to a 3, back to a 2, and then to a 1 – potentially 4 moves.  How can people live settled lives and sink their roots under such conditions? In practice this is unlikely to happen given the shortage of homes of the ‘right’ size, in which case it will increase over-crowding and the tenant will have to pay the rent if the Council cannot move them.
  • Moving, of course, especially if somebody is being forced out of their home by insufficient income to pay the ‘bedroom tax’ is a traumatic experience – ripping up their roots. Moreover, it costs money. ‘Downsizing’ to a smaller property probably means that furniture and belongings will not fit into a 1 bed flat. The Council currently offers no financial assistance to help tenants move.

We are told that it is ‘unfair’ for people on the waiting list that some tenants are living in properties larger than they ‘need’. However, the ‘bedroom tax’ will increase the waiting time for some of those on the list, especially those who only qualify for 1 bed.

In Swindon there are over 600 households facing an HB cut that ‘need’ to move to a 1 bed property if they are to avoid having to pay for ‘spare’ rooms. If these tenants are given priority over people on the waiting list then the latter will have to wait longer. Given the current rate of tenancies granted annually, it would take more than 6 years to place all these people, even if nobody on the waiting list was given a 1 bed tenancy. If you add these existing tenants together with those on the waiting list who qualify for 1 bed (on Bands A and B only), there are more than 5,000 households chasing 1 bed properties. To accommodate them all would take around 50 years, but only if the housing waiting list was closed.

This gives a graphic illustration of the scale of the housing crisis, and the fact that the legislation will only have a marginal impact. Policing tenants and bedrooms can do nothing to tackle the housing shortage. Only a return to Council house building, reducing the shortage, can help to cut the numbers on the waiting lists.

Taking a lodger is one of the alternatives which have been suggested to avoid having to pay. This is not as straight-forward as suggested, especially as many tenants are single women, or have children. Nobody will easily invite a stranger into their home and all manner of problems can arise as a result. The Council will not pay for a CRB check.

For these reasons we are appealing to you to call for the repeal of these regulations which are really directed at people on housing benefit rather than making ‘better use’ of housing stock. The DWP has said that the measure provides an ‘incentive’ for people to work. This is only true insofar as it will pressure people by cutting their income so that they have insufficient money to live on. JSA claimants may end up with less than £50 a week. In any case, in the current economic climate, finding work is no easy business.

In contrast with the demonisation of tenants and benefit claimants, for most of them this is not a ‘lifestyle choice’. They are in receipt of it because they have been made redundant, they are disabled or suffer chronic illness. To these can now be added a growing number of low paid workers, approaching a million of them. In fact over 90% of new HB claimants are in work.

The injustice of what is being done in the name of ‘fairness’ is reflected in the stark contrast between this legislation and the tax cut that will be introduced for people on more than £150,000 a year. Those affected by the ‘bedroom tax’ will not have missed the contrast between their plight and that of the bankers. They will have seen George Osborne’s rearguard action to prevent limits on bankers’ bonuses. It leaves a bad taste in the mouth.

One other argument which the government uses is that the current arrangements are ‘unfair’ to private rented tenants. If they wanted to be fair to these people why have they cut the amount of money they receive, and increased the age from under 24 to under 35 for the lower ‘shared accommodation’ HB rate? Of course, HB is higher for private tenants, which is one reason why there has been an increase of 600,000 private tenants receiving HB inside the last 5 years. Given the failure of this government and the last one to place any limits on the steep rise of private rents, HB has been in effect, a subsidy for private landlords.

One final thing. You will be aware that owing to the poverty of the people facing a cut in their HB, raising the money to pay 14% or 25% of will be difficult for some, impossible for others. We are asking you to make a commitment that you will not implement eviction procedures against tenants who are thrown into difficulties as a result of this legislation.

Many people will struggle, not because they don’t want to pay their rent, but because they are pulled between the competing demands on their meagre income in the face of rising food and utility bills and for those in work, a decline in the value of their wages. To add insult to injury they now face below inflation uprating of their HB. There is, of course, a cost to the Council in taking tenants to court, and a social cost which may result from them being evicted, children taken into care and so on.

Regards

Martin Wicks

Swindon Tenants Campaign Group                      

March 15th 2013

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