Wednesday, 1 May 2013

Bedroom Tax Bedroom Definition

The bedroom tax. An entirely punitive policy allegedly designed to shove “under-occupying” social housing tenants into size-appropriate properties when there is a massive shortage of one bedroom homes. Not that it matters to the Tories, of course. Very few people hammered by this policy are likely to place their cross against the blue party anyway come election time.

But there has been something of a black hole in the rules governing the bedroom tax. It boggles the mind, really. If you are creating legislation designed to punish those who do not use all the bedrooms in their house because “not enough” people live there, surely it would be common sense to include a definition of what constitutes a bedroom - even if to avoid confusion. But no, this has not been the case, potentially leaving the government open to legal challenges and the consequent waste of public funds dragging poorly-formulated legislation through the courts would entail.

Mindful of this, Stoke-on-Trent Central MP Tristram Hunt recently wrote to Lord Freud, the minister responsible for welfare reform asking that he gives the definition some, well, definition. This is what the good lord had to say in reply:
We do not define what we mean by a bedroom or what size it should be within Housing Benefit legislation. How many bedrooms a property contains will have been determined by the landlord and reflected in the level of rent being charged.

There are minimum space standards that can be used to assess statutory overcrowding. The space standard is in section 326 of the Housing Act 1985. It provides that the space standard is contravened when the number of persons sleeping in a dwelling is in excess of the permitted number having regard to the number and floor area of the rooms available as sleeping accommodation (and for this purpose a living room is counted as a bedroom).

We are not proposing to issue separate guidance on the size of rooms or their suitability for use as a bedroom. As rent levels generally reflect the number of bedrooms in the property and may take into account their size, it is in the tenant’s best interest to decide at the point of accepting the tenancy whether the rooms are of a suitable size for their needs.

The DCLG has published statutory guidance which includes advice to the effect that landlords, when allocating property, should make households aware of the implications in relation to Housing Benefit in the event of under-occupation.
What was that? “It’s got nothing to do with us, guv. It’s up to the landlords!”

This is a typical Tory move. Make some regressive changes to a public service, and then wash one's hands of all responsibility for the outcomes.

Where the bedroom tax, this comes with a hefty dose of political cynicism. The bedroom tax will hit those local authorities that tend to have concentrations of the low paid, the long-term sick, and the unemployed. Those are usually city or metropolitan councils, almost all of whom are Labour. And, of course, when it comes to elections people who fall into these categories are more likely to support Labour than any other party. So what the Tories have done is cut the help Labour-run authorities can give to its poorest people, make them lord and master over what constitutes a bedroom, and therefore open them up to the financial cost of appeals and court cases, as well as making them pay a political price for hitting their core support.

I suppose you could argue in response that councils (and housing associations) simply redefine their two and three bed properties as something else. This might be possible in a handful of cases where, for example, a "spare" bedroom is used for some vital function, such as storage for essential medical equipment. But a local council reclassifying hundreds of properties would give the finance officer kittens. I understand a wholesale reclassification would devalue housing stock, impact on the value of assets it holds, and badly knock on its capacity to borrow money. There could also be problems with existing loans as, suddenly, the balance sheet would look less healthy to a creditor than it did before the reclassification and may spark rounds of loan renegotiations to the detriment of the local authority. And there is also the small matter of the Department for Communities and Local Government threatening to punitively cut the local government grant in the next round if a council is seen to be avoiding implementing the bedroom tax.

The words 'over' and 'barrel' come to mind.

1 comment:

Andy Platt said...

I also very much doubt the redefining tactic would work, except in a few cases of very small bedrooms.

Here's the piece I wrote on Nottm City Council's attempt