The bedroom tax and the law of unintended consequences

A big thanks to Amelia Gentleman from The Guardian for coming back to Bushbury Hill and writing “Bedroom tax: stress and struggle as benefits clawback hits home” a great follow up to her Bedroom Tax article from March 2013.

Unsurprisingly this got me to thinking about the Bedroom Tax, a policy harsh on some but meant to help others.  However, I dawned on me that it actually makes things harder for those intended to benefit, this post explains why.

One of the reasons the Government gives as justification for the bedroom tax is that it will help the many people on housing waiting lists who are in overcrowded accommodation by freeing up larger homes.  Whilst I don’t believe that the policy is a properly thought out response to the issue of under occupation, the bedroom tax is claimed to be “fairer” to those in housing need.  Like many policies that look good on the back of a fag packet, it doesn’t work in practice.  Specifically it doesn’t help most of those of those who really need a bigger place to live, those who were meant to benefit.

In order to understand this, it is vital to know that on a national basis, social housing for families is biased towards 3 bedroom properties. Yes, there are regional differences, but in many parts of the country there are far more 3 bedroom homes than 2 beds.  As an example, on the estate where I work the ratio of 3 beds to 2 beds is  about 7:1 or 87.5%.  This is a product housing policy in the 65 years from 1925 in which the majority of our social housing was built.  The objective was to provide affordable homes for families, and the most flexible size for those with children was 3 bedrooms.

To quote myself in The Guardian

“If you had equal numbers of one-, two- and three-bedroom properties, you could do the moving-around required, but you can’t, because there has been 70 years of social housing – from the 1920s to the late 1980s – where we have built mostly three-bedroom properties, followed by 25 years of not building much. We have a legacy stock of large houses.”

Now you might imagine that if, as a consequence of the bedroom tax, these 3 bed houses became vacant, this would help exactly those families suffering from overcrowding.  Well this is where the unintended consequences come in to play.  The way the bedroom tax rules are framed mean that the majority of families who might like a 3 bedroom home won’t get one.

Under these under occupancy rules, families with 2 children cannot have 3 bedrooms if the children can share, and they are expected to share until 10 if opposite sex and 16 if the same sex.  For the purpose of this calculation I’m assuming childhood lasts up until the 18th birthday (I realise education & child related benefits carry on beyond the 18th birthday but legally they become adults and the maths becomes unnecessarily hard otherwise).  For 2 child families, 50% will have 2 children of the same sex, only 1 in 9 of these children will be aged 16 or 17 so 8/9ths will not qualify for 3 bedrooms. For the 50% with children of opposite sexes, 4 in 9 will be aged 10-17 so 5/9ths will not qualify for 3 bedrooms.  Taking these together, 13 out of 18 two child families will not be eligible for 3 bedrooms under the bedroom tax, that’s 72%.

Ministerial rhetoric has made it quite clear that the Government considers under occupation, as defined by the bedroom tax policy, is a bad thing and unfair to the taxpayer and those needing larger homes. In response to this many landlords have amended their allocations policies to make eligibility for a 3 bedroom home be in line with the bedroom tax rules.  However, in so doing, as demonstrated above, they have excluded a majority of 2 child families from the majority of their family sized stock.

So even if the bedroom tax encourages or forces people to downsize out of the 3 bedroom homes that dominate the stock in many areas, those who want and need more space for their families cannot take advantage.

For applicants for social housing, not only is this bad news for 72% of families with 2 children, it has a knock on impact on those with 1 child.  It means that a majority of families under many social landlord allocations policies will now only qualify for a 2 bedroom property.  But we know that there are far more 3 bedroom properties than 2 beds.  This is creating enormous demand for 2 beds that landlords cannot possibly meet and simultaneously reducing demand for 3 bedroom homes. Now those 1 child families are suddenly competing against many more 2 child families for a minority of available homes.

I work in Wolverhampton and the feedback from a variety of social landlords in the city is that demand for 3 beds has dropped and they are letting a proportion of these homes to people with no housing need.  Conversely the demand for 2 beds has increased massively and there is no prospect of meeting this demand – the 2 bed homes just aren’t there.

Remember, one of the policy objectives of the bedroom tax was to free homes to help rehouse overcrowded families.  In practice however, for the majority of families it has made their chances of escaping overcrowding a whole lot worse.   Well done Government, as I said, it’s the law of unintended consequences.  This is what comes from allowing housing policy to be made in the Treasury, those making the decisions know nothing and care less about social housing.

I realise that this is the Right to Transfer blog, but I couldn’t make this long argument via Twitter. Fear not, there will be much to report on the RTT over the coming weeks and months.


4 thoughts on “The bedroom tax and the law of unintended consequences

  1. paulrutherford8

    Very well put, especially regarding the competition for the [relatively] non-existent 2-bed properties.
    I know of at least one instance where a 3-bed home has been let to a single, working person who can afford the rent, which is cheaper than what they were paying privately for a 1-bed flat. And that’s in Wales.
    There are a myriad of other reasons why this policy is incredibly stupid, one being a family with a 9-year-old boy and 8-year old girl, who were forced to move. In some 7 or 8 months they re-qualify for a 3-bed house. Ludicrous.

  2. Louise Baldock

    Spot on. I have been saying this for ages. The rigid formula applies to those seeking to up size too. A fag packet policy.


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