The country is in the grip of a housing crisis. Raising the deposit for a mortgage to buy a home these days is hard. Social housing is in short supply. And so people are being funnelled into a private rented sector that is too often insecure, indecent and unaffordable.
In Islington, the most densely populated and fourteenth most deprived local authority in England, our response has been to mount the second biggest affordable house-building programme in the country, behind only Birmingham (which is the largest local authority in Europe). We are on target to build 2,000 genuinely affordable new homes by 2015.
The Coalition government’s response? To oversee the lowest levels of house-building for a century, with annual completions at less than half the level we need. Instead, they are playing with the deckchairs, at the expense of those who can afford it least.
So, today’s Bedroom Tax means that if you’re a social tenant of working age and you have one ‘spare’ room, you’ll lose Housing Benefit to the tune of 14% of your rent, and if you have two ‘spare’ rooms, you’ll lose 25%. As of today, this new Bedroom Tax will affect 660,000 households nationally, each losing on average £728 a year, including 220,000 families with children. Over 3,000 of these households live in my community in Islington.
Yet the Department of Work and Pensions’ own impact assessment says that there are not enough smaller properties for those affected to move into, so it won’t actually address under-occupation; it will just make those who are already poor poorer.
And there certainly aren’t enough accessible one-bed flats for the two-thirds of households hit who have a disabled family member, many of them single disabled people in two-bed flats with a room for their carer. Because it is disabled people who will bear the brunt of this reactionary policy. People who need a room for a carer, but not every night; people who often need family to stay with them after a spell in hospital; people with a room for all their wheelchairs and other equipment; people who have had aids and adaptations fitted that make moving impractical; and people who have built up networks of support they can’t afford to lose by moving out.
And it won’t just be disabled people getting hit. Parents who have separated and have a room each for the child they share will also be stung. So, if your 12-year-old son lives with you, his dad, four nights a week, his bedroom is classed as ‘spare’.
And, in the end, will it save any money? Of course it won’t. To the extent that people do move, it will push them into the private rented sector, where rents are higher, and so the local housing allowance bill will rise. While for social landlords like councils and housing associations, it will mean rising rent arrears and all the cost and grief of chasing them.
In the budget earlier this month, George Osborne announced his Help to Buy scheme, which, as well as helping to blow the next housing bubble, will offer government support to existing homeowners to buy a second home. So, the message from the Tory-led government is this: “Existing owners, we’ll help you buy a spare home. But if you’ve got a ‘spare’ room in social housing, pay the Bedroom Tax”. The same Coalition government will, in a few days’ time, cut the income tax paid by millionaires in their second homes, while today it whacks disadvantaged and disabled people for £15 a week for having a second room. Danny Alexander, Liberal Democrat Chief Secretary to the Treasury, calls them ‘bedroom blockers’. He should hang his head in shame.