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Bedroom tax - 31 days to go Matthew Warburton - 28/02/2013

BedroomTax250There are just 31 days to go before the bedroom tax - sorry, under-occupation benefit penalty - comes into operation. Since the turn of the year, awareness of its likely impact seems finally to have been spreading beyond the world of housing professionals. Stories detailing the perverse and unfair impact of the policy on particular families - often including someone with a disability - have appeared throughout the national media. 


Many who have campaigned against the penalties for the start will be gratified that the message is getting across, but be painfully aware that this comes too late. Although public awareness and concern about the policy may be growing, the probability that this will spark a change of direction by the government - let alone cancellation of the changes - is close to zero.

Attempts to build a campaign of direct action against the changes have not attracted widespread support - at least so far. Two demonstration in West Lancashire attracted only 20 or so demonstrators compared with the 1200 council tenants affected by the changes. The majority who stayed at home probably did so because they dismiss the possibility of forcing a government climb-down and can't see the point in pressurising the council when it is also powerless to withdraw the policy.

Opposition to the bedroom tax is fragmented. Not all opponents are willing to argue that it is wrong in principle that tenants should not be subsidised to under-occupy. Even the always-liberal Guardian has been reluctant to take this line.  There is more of a consensus against the harsher details of the proposals - the fact that benefit will be cut even where no smaller alternative accommodation is available and the lack of flexibility to meet the particular circumstances of divorced parents with part-time access to children, people who need part-time care, and those who need accommodation specially adapted for their needs.  

But these concerns do not add up to a clear case for scrapping the changes.  There is still room for the government to argue - as they have - that what they are doing is right in principle and be able still to rely on wide support from those unwilling to look at the details.  And there is every reason to suppose they will continue to stick to their guns.

Councils have been working hard to identify and brief tenants affected by the changes on the likely impact and the options available to them. But the response from tenants has generally been low-key. In part this may be because the message is taking time to get through. More likely, faced with unpalatable and in some cases impossible choices, tenants either can't decide or won't say how they will respond. Few councils are experiencing an upsurge in requests to move to smaller accommodation, even in areas where there is scope for transfers or exchanges.

Starting from 1 April, all affected tenants will have to start deciding what to do - whether to make up the benefit shortfall or go into arrears, whether to stay put or try to move to somewhere smaller. Until they act, councils need to remain flexible to adjust their responses to the pattern of events as it develops.

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