THE last time I was in Edinburgh, I noticed a Georgian building
with eight real windows and four blocked-up ones by their side.
They turned out to be an architectural remnant from the notorious
window tax introduced by William III in 1696, which slapped a
charge of four shillings on properties with 10-20 windows, and
twice that for those with more than 20. This daylight robbery
seemed like a good idea at the time, so much so that it was
repealed only in 1851.
Doubtless the current Coalition's
"bedroom tax" seemed a good wheeze to David Cameron. Faced with an
annual Housing Benefit bill of £21 billion, the Government has
decided to "encour-age" council-house and housing-association
tenants who have a spare bedroom to move to smaller houses, in
order to free larger homes for larger families. Either that, or pay
a bedroom tax - of an extra 14 per cent in rent on one spare
bedroom and 25 per cent on two.
This would have the double bonus of
getting big families out of cramped housing-waiting-list
accommodation and/or slashing the amount paid out in benefits. And
after all, the free-market ideologues argued, people in the private
sector have to match where they live to what they can afford.
So, from April, Housing Benefit
claimants who have more bedrooms than they reasonably need (which
is estimated to be about one third of claimants) will either have
to move, pay more rent, get a lodger, cut their spending, or earn
more. If only life were so simple.
There are a number of problems with
this. For a start, the definition of "under-occupying" , to use the
bureaucrat-speak, means that siblings are not allowed separate
bedrooms until the age of ten for brother and sister, or 16 if they
are the same sex. The rule has no flexibility for areas of the
country with higher unemployment, or where smaller houses are not
available - which means that there is nowhere to downsize to, nor
the means of earning the extra rent. In Chester-le-Street, for
example, there are 600 people under-occupying, but only 41
one-bedroomed council properties. Stockton has 153 under-occupiers,
and no one-bedroomed flats.
In Wales, of the 40,000 people
affected by the changes, some 4000 will have to pay more or move
into the more expensive private sector, as there is no smaller
social housing. Charities and housing associations there are
warning of an impending explosion in homelessness among families
who already have difficulty making their paltry weekly budget
balance. Telephone advice hotlines are taking hundreds of calls a
The truth is that no one is sure how
this will play out, which is why one Labour politician has called
it a "grotesque experiment" and "a callous piece of public policy",
which will put people into debt and fracture communities. It is
hard to disagree.
No exemptions have been made for the
disabled, apart from those who need an extra room for a dialysis
machine. Foster carers have found that foster children are not
counted as part of the household for bedroom entitlement; the
Government has said they can apply for a share of the £5 million
extra discretionary housing funding from their local council, but
carers say that councils have been using the money for other
purposes. The rules also ignore the needs of divorced parents with
part-time access to their children.
The news that David Cameron has
appointed the controversial Australian political consultant Lynton
Crosby to run the Conservatives' 2015 General Election campaign has
brought claims that the Tories will once again become "the nasty
party". Those poor people about to be hit by the bedroom tax may
feel that they already are.