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.