The bedroom tax is threatening to be one of the most destabilising changes yet introduced under the UK government’s welfare reform agenda.
With Chancellor George Osborne due to present his next budget to the country today, the Westminster government must surely take note of the overwhelming public and political pressure and change course on this policy.
As chief executive of Port of Leith Housing Association (PoLHA), I have been engaging with our tenants ahead of the introduction of this policy and I am beginning to get a full picture of the enormous impact the bedroom tax will have on many of their lives if allowed to go ahead.
Currently, just over eight per cent of PoLHA’s residents will be directly penalised by the bedroom tax, sometimes under the most heart-rending of circumstances. One tenant, for example, lives on his own in a two-bedroom flat, but keeps the second bedroom for his son who visits often during the week. Though he now faces a reduction in his housing benefit, he is unwilling to move as he doesn’t want to lose the room as it may mean the loss of contact with his son.
Similarly, another tenant moved into a property to provide support for her father despite having support issues herself. Her father has since passed away and she is now “under-occupying” by one bedroom. She now faces an unacceptable loss of income as a result.
Out of the many households affected by this policy, we have so far only managed to transfer a small number, as people must wait an agonisingly long time for suitable properties to become available. This process can take several months and even years as there is a serious under- supply of social housing in Edinburgh. As long as this mismatch exists, it is perverse to expect that people will simply be able to move as the Government expects.
For those potentially willing to move, additional concerns arise. Moving home can be a very stressful and costly endeavour for anyone to undertake, and these fears are only compounded for those living on a low or fixed income or who have other vulnerabilities.
To take just one example, I know of a tenant who suffers from depression and is often fearful of even leaving her house. Though she will be impacted by the bedroom tax, she is worried that moving would affect her depression and that she may not be able to move at all.
Additionally, for those with families, we risk overcrowded flats as children will now be expected to share a room, even if it is a single one as the rules around the bedroom tax do not even take the size of the bedroom into account. In addition to this human cost, the bedroom tax also poses significant challenges for our business, as rising rent arrears and greater administrative costs from this policy will make our revenue stream much more unpredictable. This will have obvious knock-on effects into other parts of our work, including our programme of affordable home-building, which may suffer even as the Scottish Government expects ambitious housing supply targets to be met. The services we provide to our residents to help them maintain their tenancy, such as our money and energy advice programmes, may also be put at risk.
Concerted pressure from across the housing and political spectrum has so far managed to persuade the Work and Pensions Secretary, Iain Duncan Smith, into recently announcing some welcome exemptions to the policy for foster carers and those with children in the armed forces, though it is clear that this is a case of too little, too late. The only way we can now avoid the most devastating effects of the bedroom tax is for the Government to commit to a wholesale rethink of this policy.
As pressure mounts, there is still time for sense and compassion to win the day.
• Keith Anderson is chief executive of Port of Leith Housing Association
• Housing association tenants are expected to lose £16 a week on average
• More than 5000 households in Edinburgh are set to lose out as a result of the bed tax
• Those affected will lose an average of £730 a year
• The proposal will affect an estimated 660,000 working-age social tenants across the UK