The real motive for the bedroom tax

Ever since the Government announced the introduction of the bedroom tax back in 2012 there has been widespread opposition to the plan. Many diverse sections of society have opposed the legislation; from disability rights activists to politicians, from community campaigners to local councils. This opposition hasn’t taken on a uniformed nature however. It is common to hear opponents of the bedroom tax condemn it on practical grounds, complaining it won’t work for a variety of reasons and urging the Government to rethink its proposals. While there may be nothing inaccurate about these complaints, focusing solely upon them tends to show a lack of understanding of the nature of the bedroom tax itself and the motives behind it in the first place.

These practical objections essentially boil down to the same issue, namely that the Government hasn’t thought through the proposal and as a result of this it will cause significant problems for those affected by it. For example, many have argued that the savings the Government claims it will make are totally false and it will in fact cost more to implement the policy than it would have done to preserve the status quo. This certainly appears to be true. The charity Shelter estimates that the average cost of each eviction will be around £8,000 while Government figures claim there will be an average saving of £728 per household, meaning that over 90% of those affected by the bedroom tax would have to avoid eviction in order for any immediate savings to be made at all. The Scottish Government’s own impact assessment survey found that this is unlikely to be the case. They estimate that half of all households affected by the bedroom tax will be able to keep up their rent payments and of the half that don’t 1 in 4 will be evicted. Even if we accept these rather optimistic predictions it still burdens local councils with greater outgoings than they are going to save, thus rendering the cost argument redundant. All this is before we factor in the extra on-going cost to the housing bill which will come as a result of those who can’t pay moving to the private sector where rents are higher and can still be claimed in housing benefit, something which is likely to put a massive drain on the public purse for years to come.

Another common objection centres around the lack of available one bedroom social housing for affected tenants to relocate to. Again this is a very valid point. Back in the days when social housing was still being built on something approaching a reasonable level local authorities quite sensibly didn’t build many one bedroom properties, instead building larger houses which were more suitable for the changing needs of tenants as they grew older and perhaps wished to start a family or needed somebody to look after them in their old age. The legacy of this is a shortage of the type of one bedroom social houses which the Government wishes those with a spare room to move to, for example in North Lanarkshire where there are 33,000 local authority properties of which only 28 are single bedroom ones.

So where will those who can’t afford to stay in social housing move to? The only available option appears to be the private sector and this brings us to the real motive behind the bedroom tax. The cabinet may not be full of nice people but it certainly isn’t made up of stupid ones either. The logic behind the official justification for the bedroom tax is so flawed that anybody with a basic primary education could tell you that its stated aims won’t be achieved. There aren’t enough one bedroom properties and the cost of rehousing those who have to move will outweigh the savings both in the short and long term. However, the real motive here is not cost nor is it the more efficient use of social housing stock; it’s the continued strengthening of the private housing sector at the expense of social housing. When Margaret Thatcher came to power in 1979 42% of the population lived in council housing, a figure which had been slashed to just 12% by 2008 largely as a result of the right to buy scheme and the abandonment of any new council properties being built. Her aim was to dismantle social housing and turn Britain into a nation of homeowners and that is a vision which hasn’t disappeared as far the Conservative Party, and the broader political class in general, are concerned. So while some of the most vulnerable people in our society are being turned from their homes in the name of “cost efficiency” and “fairness” the Government has recently announced interest free loans of up to £120,000 for those looking to buy a property, even if that is an additional home to the one they are already living in. How can they then argue that the bedroom tax is about saving money? It isn’t; it’s about changing the way we look at housing, from something which is a universal right for all of us, rich or poor, to something that we’re only entitled to if we stump up the necessary cash; changing the way we treat the most vulnerable members of our society, from caring for them and providing them safe, affordable homes to tossing them out on the streets or into the hands of slum landlords and letting them fend for themselves. Ultimately it is about changing the way we view society as a whole and getting rid of any sort of community responsibility and solidarity in favour of the notion that you are only worth what your bank balance can buy you. It’s about fostering the mentality that, in the words of Thatcher herself, “there is no such thing as society” anymore.

So there are practical objections to the bedroom tax which are clearly relevant but to make them the focus of our fight against it is to misunderstand what we are campaigning against. This isn’t a case of the plan being ill thought out, it’s a case of the plan being very well thought out and part of a much broader attack on social housing which has been going on for years. We need to fight against the very notion of the bedroom tax rather than the way it’s implemented otherwise the larger battle for our communities and the people in them will already be lost.