Bedroom tax: much-needed affordable homes face demolition

By Savi Hensman
November 10, 2013

Because of the bedroom tax, many much-needed affordable homes may be demolished, despite the housing shortage. The Observer reports that several housing associations, unable to let three-bedroom homes because of this controversial UK government measure, are planning to knock some of these down or considering doing so.

Apparently, in Liverpool, Magenta Living has found that "with changes to welfare benefits there is very little prospect of letting upper three-bedroom maisonettes in the current climate" and so one block “will be "emptied with a view to subsequent demolition". Coast and Country Housing in North-East England and Wigan and Leigh Housing are thinking of doing the same to some of their unlettable larger properties.

It has been pointed out that the removal of the so-called 'spare room subsidy' – slashing housing benefit for numerous low-waged or jobless households in social housing – discriminates against disabled people, undermines family and community life and does not make economic sense, even using the crudest calculations. Households have sometimes been forced to relocate to more expensive private rented housing.

This harsh measure has been criticised by UN special rapporteur on housing Raquel Rolnik for breaching human rights. The reasons given by government ministers and their allies – cutting public spending and making more housing available for families on the waiting list – are hollow.

It is possible however that the bedroom tax is not an expensive and cruel blunder but is rather designed to achieve quite different aims.

One purpose may be to further undermine social housing, the stock of which is already much reduced. In such accommodation, people’s hard-earned rent is used for maintenance, with perhaps a little extra for local amenities. If their income dips, the social security costs are low, and valuable buildings stay in public ownership. Money from tenants and the public does not go into enriching private landlords or artificially inflating property prices and increasing the risk of another crash.

The concept of housing which provides shelter and stability to those who live there, but not opportunities for profit to rich individual landlords or private corporations, may be offensive to some in government. Even if not-for-profit housing indirectly benefits businesses because their current and future employees are more healthy and less anxious, this may not be enough.

Another purpose may be to break down any sense that ordinary people have a right to social protection during difficult times – also part of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights agreed sixty-five years ago but now under attack from various quarters. Even if someone has worked and paid National Insurance and other taxes for forty years, and has contributed to society in many other ways, if he suffers a pay cut or loses his job, the bedroom tax emphasises the fact that none of this counts and he is entitled to little or nothing.

One impact of this ideological shift is that many people are in denial about any ‘welfare benefit’ or subsidy they have benefited from themselves. According to Kevin Gulliver of the Human City Institute, writing for Guardian Professional earlier in 2013, in the 1980s alone, more than a million council homes were sold off at generous discounts, at an estimated cost of £60 billion in today’s terms – and the policy continues. Also mortgage interest tax relief subsidised home ownership and between 1979 and 1990, this subsidy rose to over £8 billion, sometimes helping already well-off households.

So the public purse has assisted numerous homeowners as well as tenants. Yet people needing housing benefit today are stigmatised, which has made the cruelties of the bedroom tax more politically acceptable.

However growing numbers of people appear to be realising that the bedroom tax, and other policies which make life harder for those who are already disadvantaged, may also carry a heavy economic cost. As desperately-needed affordable housing comes crashing down, the wastefulness may be even harder to justify.


(c) Savitri Hensman is a regular Christian commentator on politics, economics, society, welfare and religion. She is an Ekklesia associate and works in the equality and care sector.

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