When I was a young and idealistic housing officer in the late nineteen seventies, the London Borough of Southwark (who I was working for) announced a new policy whereby all its Council tenants would be able to apply to have an extra, spare bedroom - over and above their strict entitlement. Southwark Council owned over 60,000 homes at the time and this was a popular policy allowing children to have their own bedroom or providing a room for a relative or friend to come and stay or providing a dining room or a homework room.
I think that officers tried to implement the policy but found it impossible to deliver and eventually it was quietly dropped.
The problem, as the Coalition Government are finding out with the Bedroom Tax or Spare Room Subsidy, is that allocating property according to bedroom ‘need’ is not a simple task. Households come in many shapes and sizes and are constantly changing and evolving. In the modern world, a one bedroom need can become a three bedroom need and then a two bedroom need within a relatively short space of time. Bedrooms are not portable so, to achieve the ‘correct’ fit, households have to move …but the right property might not be available in the right location.
If you then add in other complexities, such as bedroom policies that only apply to people on benefits, then the problem gets worse. Tenants may drift in and out of work – to think of moving them or penalising them when they lose their job, especially if they only have one ‘extra’ bedroom, seems cruel and short sighted.
In theory, of course, scarce, subsidised housing should be used and allocated as effectively as possible so that homes that could be used, for instance, by five people are not used by two people. But trying to tackle under-occupation by only one- bedroom and doing that through the benefits system is not only impractical, over ambitious and difficult to defend but risks undermining all of the Governments proposed changes to welfare benefits.
What the Government should have done was to take a considered look at all households under-occupying by two bedrooms or more for significant periods of time. This is a widely recognised problem and is worth devoting resources to.
Of course, it is older people that are the main under-occupiers by two or more bedrooms. Typically, a family, consisting of a man and wife and two or three children, is allocated a three bedroom house but twenty years later the children have left home leaving one or two parents in a large house.
But older people are exempt from the bedroom tax/spare room subsidy - undermining Government claims that this is a ‘fair’ policy.
If the bedroom tax/spare room subsidy had applied to under occupation by two bedrooms or more and had applied to young and old equally, it would have been far easier for Ministers to defend and implement.