The latest figures for the Swindon Council housing waiting list put the government’s “bedroom tax” into stark perspective. One of their arguments in support of the ‘bedroom tax’ is that it will enable Councils to make ‘best use’ of the housing stock on the basis of ‘need’ as defined by the ‘bedroom standard’. The government is cutting Housing Benefit for some tenants considered to be occupying houses ‘too big for their needs’ as a means of pressuring them to move into smaller accommodation and thus freeing up bigger family homes for those who are living in over-crowded conditions. But is it possible to shift lots of tenants about in order to free up sufficient homes? As we shall see there is no way that this can work because of the mismatch between the size of households and the actual needs of existing tenants and those on the waiting list. 

The massive shortage of Council housing is reflected in the numbers on the waiting list in Swindon. If we ignore for the moment those on Bands C and D (there are 6,890 on Band C who are considered to be “in low need” 1,171 on Band D, who do not qualify to be able to bid for homes on the Council’s Homebid system), in May of this year there were 5,797 households on the waiting list in Bands A and B plus 871 on bands A and B on the transfer list (existing tenants), making 6,668. These people are considered as being “in housing need”.

The scale of the problem the Council faces is shown when you break down these numbers into types of household. For instance, 3,881 single people and couples with no dependants, ‘qualify’ for a one bed property. However, last year the Council let only 104 one bedroom properties, and some of those were bedsits suitable only for single people. At that rate it would take over 37 years to provide all these people with tenancies (in the unlikely event that there was no increase in the numbers on the waiting list). However, instead of helping to ease the problem, the government’s ‘bedroom tax’ makes the situation worse.

Swindon Council estimates that more than 1,300 households of existing tenants are ‘under-occupying’ and as a result will suffer a cut in Housing Benefit. Of these, 775 households would have to move to a one bedroom property and 547 to a two bedroom one if they were to avoid an HB cut. If you add the 775 to those on the waiting list who qualify for one bedroom, that comes to 4,656. At a rate of 104 properties a year it would take nearly 45 years to place them all in a one bedroom home. Of course, with waiting list numbers increasing it would take even longer. So in practice many of these people on the waiting list, even though they are considered to be “in need”, stand no chance whatsoever of gaining a tenancy, if there are no new homes built.

Whilst the Council might like to forget about Bands C and D – the government has given them the ability to strike these people off the register – there is still a disguised need amongst the thousands on Band C. For instance, an adult who cannot afford to buy a home or pay private rented accommodation, may not be considered to be “in need” if they are still living with their parents in a home which is not over-crowded. How can young people lead independent lives if they are forced to live with their parents, (commonly today, into their 30’s) because they cannot afford, or obtain a mortgage, cannot afford high private rent, and face no prospect of getting a Council tenancy?

What these figures show (even excluding consideration of Bands C and D) is that the ‘bedroom tax’ penalises poor people without being able to resolve the shortage of housing, nor even, in the terms of the government’s professed motivation for introducing it, making the ‘best use’ of scarce housing. Indeed, the decision to exclude retired tenants from the ‘bedroom tax’, means that much of the ‘under-occupied’ housing is not called into the equation. The latest figure we have been able to find is the estimate of ‘under-occupation’ from Swindon Council’s 2006 Housing Needs Assessment – 1,152 households, of which 651 were comprised of retired tenant households, or just over 56% of the total. There’s no reason to suppose that  the percentage today would be any different. So the least you can say is that more than 50% of the stock is excluded from “the best use”.

Obviously we are not arguing that tenants should be penalised as well. We are opposed to any tenants being penalised for a housing shortage which this and previous governments have refused to address. The government excluded senior citizens, of course, because they did not want stories in the media of OAPs being forced out of their homes by HB cuts. They are worried about losing the ‘silver vote’.

The government has said that this policy aims to be ‘fair’ to people on the waiting list. However, in practice it will mean that they will be stuck on the waiting list for years longer. The Council is caught between a rock and a hard place. If it feels obliged to give priority to people who will suffer an HB cut then people on the waiting list will suffer the consequences. We can see the implications when you look at one bedroom properties again. If the Council decided to give those suffering the bedroom tax priority over people on the waiting list, then it would still take the best part of 8 years to place all those who ‘need’ one bedroom (if nobody on the waiting list was given a tenancy over that period). On the other hand for every household on the waiting list given a tenancy ahead of an existing tenant who needed to transfer to a smaller property so as not to face an HB cut, then that person/family would be penalised for longer, even if they have asked for a move.

In a discussion on Swindon Council’s Housing Facebook page some contributors have suggested that, given the housing shortage, it is ‘unfair’ for people to live in housing with more bedrooms than they ‘need’ so they should ‘downsize’. I can understand tenants who live in an over-crowded house considering it to be unfair for a single person or a couple to live in a 3 bed house. However, if they were in the shoes of the other person they would look at it differently. Everybody goes through a life cycle, most people bringing up children who eventually leave home. That’s what produces ‘spare’ bedrooms. Those who argue that these people should move need to put themselves in their position. Their house (if they are lucky enough to have one) is their home. They have lived their lives there, brought their children up, worked to improve their home, decorated it, worked on the garden and so on. They may feel at ease in their neighbourhood, have their friends and so on. As it stands, because of the rigidity of the ‘bedroom standard’ an individual or couple who voluntarily moved out of a 3 bedroom house would only be able to move into a 1 bedroom flat. Who is going to give up a house which is their home for a flat, not necessarily in their area, risking losing the quality of their life?

If they only have one bedroom it means they cannot have family and friends visit them and stay overnight. ‘Downsizing’ also comes at a cost. Their furniture and fittings are likely to be too big so they will have to pay out a lot for replacements. If the Council wants to encourage people to downsize from 3 or 4 bedroom houses then they might have more takers if they enabled them to move into 2 bedroom homes.

Those tenants who need larger homes should not blame other tenants for the shortage. It is the politicians and governments from the time of Thatcher who are responsible for the shortage of homes, not other tenants. For the fact is that there is a large mismatch between the size of the homes that the Council has and the needs of tenants who require more bedrooms and the growing numbers of people on the waiting list.

We can see that when we look at the make-up of the stock. The applicants on the waiting list (Bands A and B only) qualify for the following homes:

Bed Nos Number on Bands

A and B

1 Bed 3,881 58.2%
2 Bed 1,027 15.4%
3 Bed 1,201 18%
4+ Bed 69 1%
Aged 60 + for

1 or 2 bed

490 7.3%

Yet the make up of the Council’s homes is, according to their “Strategic Housing Market Assessment”, as follows:

One bed 33.4%
Two bed 27.1%
Three bed 39.1%

Obviously the most striking feature is the massive imbalance between applicants who ‘qualify’ for one bedroom and the number available. The situation is worse even than it would appear from these figures because some of the properties are for people who are over 60 – sheltered accommodation (1,500 units), maisonettes and bungalows. 10% of the stock consists of bungalows and 1.5% of maisonettes.

No matter how you try to move tenants about into homes the ‘right’ size, based on the ‘bedroom standard’, it is simply impossible to resolve the issue of over-crowding and ‘under-occupation’. Indeed the exclusion of senior citizens from the process makes a nonsense of the government’s assertion that the ‘bedroom tax’ will make ‘better use’ of the existing stock.

Pressuring tenants by penalising already poor people into moving into smaller accommodation cannot work for the simple reason that Councils do not have sufficient homes of the right size. The government knew this since the “impact assessment” which the Work & Pensions Department carried out for it, in relation to the HB changes, admitted that there was a ‘mismatch’ between ‘need’ and homes of the ‘right’ size:

“In many areas this mismatch could mean there are insufficient properties to enable tenants to move to accommodation of an appropriate even if tenants wished to move…”

However, that hasn’t stopped them from penalising even those tenants who have asked for a move though the Council does not have another property to offer them.

We can see from the Swindon figures the scale of the mismatch, and other Councils have an even greater mismatch. The only result of these ‘reforms’ will be the worsening of the life circumstances of roughly 670,000 people nationally (two thirds of them disabled according to the government’s own figures) and a probable increase in arrears of rent as some will be unable to find the money to cover the cut in their benefit.

The only realistic way of addressing the crisis is to tackle the housing shortage and build new Council homes. That is the only way to be ‘fair’ to the people on the housing waiting list. ‘We’ cannot afford it we are told. This is patent nonsense. It’s a question of priorities. If the government wanted to promote house building which was needed, and affordable, it could do a number of things. It could write off the so-called housing debt which it imposed on Councils as part of the ‘one-off settlement’ for the new Housing Revenue system. That’s £12 billion, not much more than the cost of the Olympics – a small sum compared to the £375 million handed over to the banks by way of ‘quantitative easing’. It could even, if that was too radical a step for it, suspend payment of that debt for a couple of years, giving Councils many millions extra money which they could use to build new stock. They could do what the Local Government Association has asked them to do, lift the borrowing cap which they have imposed on Councils. Yet it appears that the step they refuse to take is recognising that new Council housing is needed. The housing crisis in Swindon and nationally cannot be resolved without taking such a step.

Martin Wicks