Against the Bedroom Tax

John Perry

From 1 April something like 660,000 people who have spare bedrooms are going to be taxed if they don’t take in a lodger or move to a smaller house. This might sound like a selflessly even-handed if drastic move on the part of the welfare minister Lord Freud, given that his own house has eight bedrooms, some of which are presumably spare. But the tax applies only to those in social housing who receive housing benefit, not to owner-occupiers or people with two homes. It doesn’t apply to pensioners, unless they are foolish enough to have a younger partner. The government is trying to sell it as a sensible measure that simply requires some of us to shove up a bit and make room for someone else. ‘What we can’t continue to do,’ Grant Shapps says, ‘is pay for a million empty rooms whilst we’ve got… so many people in desperate need of a house at all.’

The kinds of people who will be penalised for wasting a bedroom include: a couple whose only son is in the army but stays with them when he’s on leave; a couple who sleep apart because one has a chronic illness; a person who doesn’t need a live-in carer, but has one who stays when required; a father separated from his children who has them to stay at weekends; someone who helps the parents of a disabled child by having him sleep over; a lone parent with a son and a daughter, who are expected to share a room until one of them is ten; a disabled person living independently in a house adapted to their needs.

Tenants’ benefits will be cut by either 14 per cent (for one spare room) or 25 per cent (for two). This is expected to save the Treasury £500 million, 6 per cent of which (£30 million) will be put aside for ‘exceptional cases’ exempt from the penalty. Many of the unexceptional majority will be forced to move.

There might be some cruel sense to all this if people could actually shove up a bit, as the government wants. But there simply aren’t enough right-sized houses available. Even in Hull, where housing demand is not as great as in (say) the south-east, there are 4700 affected tenants but only 73 properties for them to downsize into. The coalition is targeting social tenants in ‘subsidised’ housing, ignoring their own figures which show that while 10 per cent of social tenants under-occupy, the proportion for private tenants is 16 per cent and for owner-occupiers 49 per cent. Even more absurdly, if a single person lives alone in an eight-bedroom house, they get their council tax knocked down by a quarter to compensate them for the vast space they have to look after. In other words, under-occupation by home owners is not penalised but rewarded by, on average, £361 a year.

There are signs of revolt. The label ‘bedroom tax’ has stuck despite government objections. Glasgow advice agencies have obtained counsel’s opinion that the use to which the room is put determines the issue, so if a tenant has a room where the children do their homework it can’t count as ‘spare’. Some social landlords may forego rental income by redesignating houses as smaller than they really are. There are many local campaigns like Leeds Hands off our Homes. And a national petition has so far gleaned more than 100,000 signatures (even if it’s addressed to Cameron at ‘the House of Lords’).


  • 20 February 2013 at 3:35pm
    streetsj says:
    You can see the point and I daresay there are one or two situations where people are occupying public housing which is no longer appropriate for their needs but the policy as you have outlined it seems bonkers. (Not least exempting pensioners who one might have thought are the most likely under-occupiers.)
    Having said that I think the point you make about the relative under-occupation of private housing is irrelevant. It is the government’s job to make sure the housing it owns and controls is allocated efficiently, how private individuals use their housing is nothing to do with them.

    • 22 February 2013 at 9:29am
      semitone says: @ streetsj
      Why is the underoccupation of private housing irrelevant? I think it is pertinent for two reasons. First, it is always interesting to contemplate the hypocrisy of a man with a nine-bedroom house introducing legislation to penalise the sorts of people mentioned in Perry's second paragraph. But more importantly, the point is that this policy will do bugger all to allocate public housing more efficiently, so it will do bugger all to address the problem it's supposed to: the shortage of housing (especially for first-home buyers) in this country at a time when thousands of dwellings stand empty.

      Private dwellings are more likely to be used "inefficiently" than public housing is, so that might be a clue for someone genuinely trying to solve the problem rather than looking for more benefits to cut. No one here is advocating a bedroom tax on private property, though a removal of the subsidy might be a better way to boost the exchequer than yet another cut to benefits.

      As for your last sentence, I couldn't agree less. There is plenty of legislation controlling how private individuals use their property, to encourage a common good. That principle is not new.

  • 21 February 2013 at 4:27am
    rwhalley says:
    April 1st eh? Are you sure someone's not pulling your leg?

  • 1 March 2013 at 2:23pm
    John Perry says:
    The Labour Party has begun a campaign against the bedroom tax: