Last night the Labour Party valiantly fought for opposition without alternatives by calling a vote on the ‘bedroom tax’ which is not a tax, it’s a reduction in Housing Benefit for someone of working age if they have a spare bedroom in Council Housing, with exemptions.
Labour would have you believe that People with a spare bedroom in subsidised homes for the needy should keep them whilst hundreds of thousands of needy families remain in overcrowded accommodation, 3 or 4 to a room in the private sector with no entitlement to claim for a spare room.
Labour are also, let’s not forget, the party which changed the rules for those getting Housing Benefit in the Private sector in 2008 so that they could not claim for spare bedrooms and were considering doing the same in the Social Sector, which is what gives the Coalition covering fire today. The only rationale in this debate, bitterly disappointingly, is to save money.
Either Housing Benefit should pay for need, or it should pay to cover a whole home, but different rules for people in equal need, but in different forms of housing, is neither fair nor equitable. Especially when those in private houses are just as in need and paying far higher rents.
So no, scrapping the ‘bedroom tax’ in principal wouldn’t be fair, Labour, you guys changed the rules in the private sector, there is a huge government deficit and damned if Labour could come up with an alternative proposal.
Of course this doesn’t mean the Coalition have it right either. This policy has the right goal with a piss poor clapped out, immobile vehicle for delivery.
There are hundreds of thousands of families in overcrowded accommodation, or in private housing with sky high rents who would do pretty much anything to get that 3 bedroom council house a Hypothetical Granny – which everyone with a ‘what about the old people’ scarcity of argument pulls out in any debate like this – has been occupying alone for 50 years because she is entitled to stay there for life, but she isn’t moving.
First, there is nowhere for her to go, there are few places she could downsize to, second, it’s her house for life and she don’t want to go, third, she’s exempt from the ‘bedroom tax’ because she’s a voting pensioner no one wants to piss off.
So she stays, those spare bedrooms go unused and the cut in housing benefit doesn’t change a thing except make it harder for thousands of families in overcrowded accommodation.
Congratulations Iain Duncan-Smith. In a market rigged in favour of those who brought property cheap before most people unable to buy today were born, where there has been next to no extra supply and which affords older people every advantage to win their vote, you’ve managed to make pensioners as a group even better off. Well Done.
The coalition did change the rules to end the ‘House for life’ entitlement of anyone who gets a council house tenancy in the 2011 Localism Act – now there are 5 year rolling review periods available and anyone who can fend for themselves or has more space than they need is told to leave and make way for someone in need – this is good, a social policy based on need, not entitlement, is indispensable.
The problem is the coalition didn’t make this change to existing tenants, instead hoping to nudge people out with a 14% reduction in their housing benefit.
This cop-out means anyone who had a council house before 2011 doesn’t get reviewed. So council tenants with a lot of spare bedrooms like RMT boss Bob Crow, who pays £150 a week rent and earns £115,000 a year gets to keep their cheap as chips rent house paying just 14% a month more, others get to stay in much needed large houses with lots of empty bedrooms at marginal, and less than market, extra cost whilst those who need those empty bedrooms pay far more for less.
And that’s not to mention the total screw up over those who have spare bedrooms but need them for genuine purposes or those whose income and outgoings are so borderline they can’t pay – such as disabled people who can’t share their room with their partner, or a disabled couple who can’t work, for instance, especially if they have adaptations which make moving expensive and exacting.
There could have been a better way
It would have been far better if the Coalition hadn’t decided to tidy around the edges and just went in and cleaned up the mess: Housing supply, changing entitlements for pre-existing council tenants and only then spare rooms.
The ‘Bedroom tax’ should still exist, but reductions to Housing Benefit should apply only after existing tenants have been offered a viable opportunity to downsize, taking into account the local community and their lives around work, schools, family and friends and chosen to stay in the bigger property.
Council Housing should be based on need, and housing is scarce, the 5 year reviews should be extended to everyone in Social Housing and those who don’t need the support should make way for those who do. If it’s good for new tenancies, it’s good for old.
We need more houses overall. Easing planning restrictions in London to build one mile out toward the M25 would provide enough space for 1 million new houses, easing planning restrictions in zones 2-5 could provide another million and rejuvenating the economies of cities like Liverpool and Stoke, with spare housing, would help to relieve the demand on overburdened areas. Any party which makes building more houses a priority has a good shout on, and deserves to win, the next general election.
The Venn Diagram at top was a satirical take on This report from Shelter, but any country which puts room for housing on a par with room for one sport should look at itself and despair. We’re bankrupting ourselves, impoverishing our young people and leaving families in desperate, overpriced accommodation for the sake of not building on 1-2% of the UKs available space.
We use as much land for golf courses in England as we do for homes? We set aside as much land for a few thousand to wander around with small balls and large pieces of Steel at the weekends as we do to house 63 Million People? Shameful.
Whilst ministers are too timid to ask a Granny in a council house to downsize and content to see 250,000 people in overcrowded homes, whilst the opposition would rather make partisan points than come up with a credible plan to tackle our housing shortage and whilst successive governments fail to build housing to meet demand, use as many spare bedrooms as they can or fail to make it easier for house builders to build houses, we’re stuck, in our parents basement, blinking in the dark.