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Getting real

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Getting real

The bedroom tax is turning out to have as many alternate realities as it has names.

Whether you call it that or the under-occupation penalty or the social sector size criteria or even ending the spare room subsidy, the everyday reality is shown very well in a TV documentary on BBC Wales. If you have the time between now and 11 o’clock tonight (when it expires on iplayer) to watch ‘What cost a spare room in Wales?’ it’s well worth the effort.

The uncomfortable reality (uncomfortable for ministers at least) came in a report from the University of York that says the policy may end up saving at least a third less than the government claims.

The hyper-reality came in two extraordinary appearances yesterday by newly promoted work and pensions minister Esther McVey on the World at One and later at parliamentary questions.

And there’s even the unreality of a brief flurry on twitter just now about Nick Clegg’s supposed announcement of an independent review of the policy, which turns out to be just a reference to the evaluation that the government committed itself in the final stages of the Welfare Reform Act. The legal reality is of course still developing through tribunal cases and the Court of Appeal. 

The documentary follows three victims of the bedroom tax in Blaenavon and the staff from Bron Afon Community Housing trying to help them. Then it adds an extra twist when David Davies, the Conservative MP for Monmouth and chair of the Welsh Affairs Committee, tells them why he thinks it’s fair.  

If Wales has a greater percentage of social tenants affected by the bedroom tax than anywhere else in the UK, then Blaenavon has special problems of its own. The chances of downsizing within the town are slim at best and moving anywhere else means moving miles away from friends and family. Meanwhile voids are increasing on larger homes that nobody wants.

Natalie, whose bedrooms are spare because her three kids live with her mum Molly during the week, only escapes eviction when Molly agrees to pay £47 a week to cover the shortfall on her rent plus her arrears. Amy and Lloyd had to take a two-bed flat because they couldn’t find a one-bed in their home town but the cost is pushing them to the limit. Gail was working until recently but has gone into arrears for the first time because of the penalty on the two bedrooms in her house that have been empty since her children left home.

David Davies tells them face to face why he supports the policy but seems to waver as he hears the story. He bluntly tells Lloyd he should get a job or go to London. He tells Molly he can see that it’s more of a problem in rural areas and Wales than it is in cities.

But he clearly has the most sympathy for Gail. ‘Ministers are maybe a bit reluctant to admit this but there will be unintended consequences and some people will lose out who don’t deserve to lose out,’ he tells her. ‘But they’re not going to reverse the whole thing or change it because there’s a bigger picture.’

The bigger picture, with a brief nod to ‘hardworking people’, is presumably saving money – but what if it doesn’t?

That’s the question posed in my second reality, the one raised by Rebecca Tunstall from York’s Centre for Housing Policy in a report for Riverside, Affinity Sutton, Gentoo and Wigan and Leigh Housing. The press release is on Riverside’s website here.

The report uses real data for the first five months of the policy for 127,000 homes in England and applies it to the model used by the DWP in its impact assessments to estimate that it will deliver £480 million of savings in 2013/14.

Read the full report for the details but the key findings are that flaws in the model mean the DWP underestimated:

  • the number of people underoccupying by one bedroom who would move
  • the proportion of those affected who would move into the private rented sector
  • the proportion of homes vacated that would be relet to existing social tenants.

And that means the DWP could have overestimated the total savings by between £160 million (33 per cent) and £186 million (39 per cent). If you add the £65 million in discretionary housing payments set aside for this year even more of the ‘savings’ disappear.

The report is careful to stress that it does not claim to be a fully representative sample but the implications are clear. Especially when these figures take no account of the extra costs faced by landlords and local authorities for adaptations for disabled tenants who move, rising rent arrears and re-let times, rent collection and tenancy support, lost ability to build new homes and the knock-on effects on homelessness, health, education, advice and social services.

And so to the hyperreality of Esther McVey. For openers, she was involved in one of the most remarkable radio interviews I’ve head this year on yesterday’s World at One.

She claimed the findings were ‘skewed’ and ‘not credible’ because the housing associations involved are ‘net gainers’ with a stake in getting the answers they wanted. That was quite a claim. Quite apart from ignoring the academic rigour behind the report and questioning the good name of those involved, an earlier report involving three of the four landlords who commissioned this one was quoted approvingly in the DWP’s own impact assessment in 2012.

As it seemed increasingly more likely that McVey (and perhaps not her officials either) had not actually read the report, she repeatedly refused to say which conclusions she disagreed with. Putting yourself in the position where your interviewer keeps asking the same question that you don’t answer is never a good idea for politicians. McVey was reduced to spluttering that ‘you’ve got to give credence to our credibility’. It was cringe comedy gold.

But it turned out that this was only the start of the hyper-reality. At yesterday’s work and pensions questions the opening bedroom tax skirmishes involved Iain Duncan Smith and (yet again) the UN special rapporteur Raquel Rolnik. He told Nick Raynsford it was all Labour’s fault: ‘Instead of little gimmicks with people from Brazil, they would be better off apologising for the mess they left us in in the first place.’

Not content with that, he then backed up Lord Freud by blaming ‘housing associations and others’ for ‘continuing to build houses that are not required when there is a demand for single bedroom accommodation.’ Never mind, of course, that they are building what they are committed to under the Affordable Homes Programme and that Affordable Rent will increase the housing benefit bill.

Then it was back to McVey and, just to bring things full circle, she was responding to a question from a Welsh MP. Huw Irranca-Davies said rent arrears were rising for associations in his Ogmore constituency:

‘They have a desperate scarcity of one and two-bedroom properties to rent, and yet they have three-bedroom properties lying empty. Is this just a necessary but painful adjustment to the Secretary of State’s benefit and bedroom tax changes?’

McVey’s answer may surprise a few people:

‘The hon. Gentleman is quite right—we have to get the stock right: the fact that there are three-bedroom houses and why in the last three years they have not been modified into one and two-bedroom houses. Those questions have to be asked. That is what we have to do: get the stock right and support people as best we can.’

So it turns out the solution has been staring us in the face all along: knock down bedroom walls. Ignore for a moment the implications for landlords’ business plans. Forget those DWP warnings about reclassification. Leave aside the fact that any ‘savings’ will simply become reduced rental income and increased costs for conversions. Blank out that it’s meant to be freeing up homes for overcrowded families. It’s all starting to make sense now.


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