Swindon’s housing waiting list and the ‘bedroom tax’

I have just seen the November figures for Swindon’s housing waiting list and the transfer request list. There are 12,464 households on the waiting list and 2,262 on the transfer list. Of these, 6,775 are on bands A and B – ‘in urgent need’ and ‘in need’. When you look at the breakdown of these figures you can see that the ‘bedroom tax’, which the government says is designed to make ‘better use’ of existing housing, would only marginally impact on the shortage (if at all), even if all those subject to the tax moved into smaller properties. They won’t be able to because of the lack of sufficient numbers of smaller properties.

The number of households on the list (single people or couples with no dependants) who, according to the ‘bedroom standard’, qualify only for a one bedroom property, is 4,440. This is the figure only for Bands A and B. To this you have to add those people subject to the ‘bedroom tax’. Whilst the final figure for those who will have to pay has yet to be determined, probably 700 should be added to this total of people who require a one bedroom property. The Council’s original estimate was that around 1,300 households were ‘under-occupying’, out of which 775 would have to move to a one bed property if they were to avoid having to pay for their ‘spare’ room/s. The latest Council estimate is 1,044, with contact still to be made with 200 households thought to be liable.

So the combined number of existing tenants and those on waiting list Bands A and B who qualify for one bedroom is in excess of 5,000 households. Given the fact that last year the Council gave out 104 tenancies for one bedroom properties it would take the best part of 50 years to accommodate all these people. That’s only if nobody else was added to the waiting list.

Even if the tenants in receipt of HB who have one or more ‘spare’ bedrooms could be found a smaller property at once (which they can’t), that would still leave 4,440 households waiting for a one bedroom property. It would still take 40 years to accommodate them. In reality, in the absence of a Council house building programme, many of these people will never get a tenancy.

The real purpose of the bedroom tax is to drive down housing benefit. It sits alongside the government’s demonisation of benefit recipients, the ‘scroungers’ as opposed to the ‘strivers’. The Department of Work and Pensions explained that the ‘reform’ “provided an economic incentive for tenants to move to smaller properties where their accommodation is considered larger than necessary to meet their needs”. In other words pressuring poor people by the “economic incentive” of not having enough money to live on! Contrast that with the tax cut for those on £150,000 a year which will kick in on the same day that the ‘bedroom tax’ is introduced.

If the motivation of the government was really to make ‘best use’ of existing housing stock then it wouldn’t have excluded pensioners in receipt of HB. Yet a majority of the ‘spare’ bedrooms are in the homes of people who are retired or who pay full rent because they don’t qualify for HB. But these people are unaffected. In the 2006 Housing Needs Assessment it was estimated that 56% of  households which were ‘under-occupying’ were retired households. We don’t have an up to date figure but it is probably no different. There will be others who  pay full rent who also have ‘spare’ bedrooms. So it is probable that two thirds of households with ‘under-occupation’ are unaffected by the tax. This shows that the real target is HB recipients.

It should be said that the ‘bedroom standard’ takes no account of real life, of the usual life cycle. It originates from a time when over-crowding was rife and a couple having a room to themselves would have been a step forward. If rigidly applied tenants would be moving from one property to the next as their family grew, until, when their children leave home, a couple would once again only qualify for one bedroom. It would create transient communities instead of settled ones. What is the point of putting a young couple in a one bed flat when you know that as soon as we hear the patter of tiny feet they will need to be moved to a two bedroom property, and then if the family grows, possibly a three or four bedroom house. The more moves there are the more money the Council loses in empty properties. Tenants want a long-term, they want stability.

Not unreasonably those facing paying the ‘bedroom tax’ are refusing to be driven out of their homes. Of the more than 1,000 people subjected to the injustice of this punishment for being in receipt of HB, only a handful have applied for transfers. These are their homes. They have lived their lives in them, devoted time, energy and money, to keep them up. It is one thing to encourage tenants to ‘downsize’, to assist them with the cost of moving, but it is another thing altogether to try to drive them out.

Faced with a massive housing shortage resulting from the ‘right to buy’ and the absence of new building on anything but a tiny scale, instead of tackling the shortage the government is demonising tenants who are on HB. Given the scale of the shortage, moving tenants about into different properties is not only unjust, it is a diversion from addressing the roots of the housing crisis. Nationally 1.8 million households comprising more than 5 million people are on the waiting list. As the figures relating to Swindon show the ‘bedroom tax’ will do nothing to resolve this crisis. It will serve only to penalise people for being unemployed, for being disabled, and it will add to the scale of human misery which the coalition government has created by its austerity programme. Sooner or later it will have to be recognised that a new Council house building programme is necessary to address the housing shortage. The longer that day is put off the deeper the housing crisis will become. In the case of Swindon there is a shortage of 800 ‘affordable’ houses, every year. So the situation is deteriorating each and every year.

Martin Wicks

December 18th 2012

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