There’s a growing mood against the Bedroom Tax, the ill-conceived policy with the potential to cause the government serious damage. The extent to which people are prepared to stomach or resist cuts is the crucial political question of the day. So far the Con/Dems have relied on marginal support for austerity measures amongst that peculiar (I often think particularly British) body of opinion that interprets society through the prism of ‘common sense’. Even allowing for the manifold weaknesses of the Labour opposition and wider labour movement, it has never seemed likely there would be a spontaneous rebellion against the cuts, rather a slow-burn anger (again, a rather British trait) for which the Bedroom Tax could become a lightning rod.
From a purely housing policy perspective, the suggestion that it’s possible to shuffle existing tenants in order to resolve our massive housing crisis is absurd. Even at the most local level, such as the estate I manage, there is no meaningful correlation between some people ‘under-occupying’ and others being overcrowded or homeless. For many council tenants in Islington and elsewhere, the chance of having a spare bedroom would be a fine thing, but this isn’t really about rationalising the council housing stock to reduce the waiting list – even the government has stopped claiming that – it’s part of an ideological attack on the Welfare State for which council tenants and other non-market renters are the target par excellence.
Council housing has been stigmatised for years, but the Bedroom Tax reveals the prejudice and ignorance that informs policy. As a propaganda shield around deep cuts in public services, the image is invoked of the lazy, feckless, lead-swinging council tenant living a life of luxury on benefits. In fact, about 40% of council tenants work and many are carers, elderly or have disabilities. To the extent that council housing has become a ‘benefit trap’, this is the consequence of successive government policies that have impoverished the sector, but contrary to a repeated fallacy, council housing, even in its residualised state, is a net contributor to HM Treasury.
By contrast, private home ownership attracts a variety of hidden tax-breaks and subsidies, the latest (and most excessive) round of which were announced in yesterday’s budget, but while home owners are placed on an ideological pedestal, council tenants are placed in the stocks. Nobody asks State-subsidised owner occupiers how many spare bedrooms – or spare homes – they have, but it won’t be a surprise if council tenants are soon expected to free up space by sharing a bed with a stranger from the waiting list.
Beyond the rhetoric of a quick-fix policy that won’t fix anything, the deeper significance of the Bedroom Tax is of a government that perceives council housing and the people who live in it as chattel. Fortunately, this warped view is not shared by tenants who won’t leave their homes under duress, but will struggle to pay the extra rent, inevitably leading to arrears and a threat of evictions, but no reduction in waiting lists or Housing Benefit, at which point the Bedroom Tax will start to unravel.