Working together to tackle the bedroom tax

Jamie Insole explains how working with landlords and tenants have had an effect in tackling the bedroom tax.

During its first, and hopefully, final year, Westminster’s ‘spare-room subsidy’ has become a byline for both callous incompetence and administrative perversity. Attacked in the media, attracting censure from the United Nations and unraveling in the courts, Cardiff & South Wales Against the Bedroom Tax has consistently demonstrated how this measure punishes most the financially-vulnerable members of our community.

Far from tackling ‘under occupancy’ the majority of the Welsh 33000 tenants caught in its grasp are confronted with the choice of paying money they do not have or ‘downsizing’ to properties that do not exist. Meanwhile, against the backdrop of universal credit and the realization that Welsh Government might not be positioned to sustain Council Tax Benefit beyond 2015, the sector is demonstrating an increasing appetite to explore options beyond mere mitigation. As arrears and voids continue to grow, we hope that this article will provide some insight into how a powerful coalition can form in response to the train-wreck instigated by those tasked with ‘re-imagining’ the welfare state.

Many now agree that the early policy-consensus formed around the objective of containing tenant poverty and thus preventing welfare reform from forcing a wider crisis of Welsh social housing. Understandable from the perspective of preservation, one of the effects was to render social landlords mistrustful of any strategy that did not depend upon the tenant developing sufficient ‘financial-muscle’ to meet the burden. This in turn has often acted to poison what has traditionally been a warm and solid relationship.

Our federation was formed to root opposition throughout Welsh communities and turn the accepted narrative on its head. Too often, depictions have polarized between ‘passive victims’ and ‘canny scroungers’ – both casting the subject as a silent actor. Seeking to bring the maximum number of tenants into activity, we looked to avoid becoming exclusive to Cardiff City Center and, have instead, invested our resources into building local groups throughout nine Local Authorities. That said, the campaign has succeeded in bringing together a broad constituency of support including such organizations as the Church in Wales, Unison, Shelter Cymru in addition to cross-party support in Senedd and Parliament.

Since November 2013, we, in common with our third sector partners, have explored the prospect of a mass-appeals strategy. However, and following the breakthrough of our January pre-96 campaign (which resulted in the temporary exemption of anything between 6-8% of those affected), we have been working closely with housing benefit staff, supporting tenants to take forward housing benefit appeals for exemption from the bedroom tax. Contact has been made on the doorstep, through advice-referrals or well placed letters in local press. In all we have already lodged in excess of 310 tribunal-ready cases across nine local authorities.

While this initial tranche represents an excellent start, it did beg the question as to why so few of the 33000 affected had exercised their right to appeal? Indeed, nobody told them that they could, historically, their landlord or housing benefit office had suggested that they could not. Buy in from the sector was thus going to prove essential.

Partly for this reason, we felt that the time was right to convene a working-conference with a view to generalizing this experience. Chaired by Keith Edwards, Director of CIH Cymru, the event attracted take-up from eleven social landlords, the third-sector, Community Housing Cymru, Welsh Government and other stakeholders.

Whereas case-law is constantly developing, established grounds for judicial exemption can be broadly categorized as:

  • where a tenant/tenants dependent requires an overnight carer, cannot share a bed due to disability or has received extensive adaptations

  • a room measures less than 70 square feet

  • the bedroom has neither been used nor furnished for the purpose of sleeping

  • a tenant possesses rights of access that means that a child stays at the property.

The message was simple; UK-wide, 58% of appeals are likely to succeed whereas in Liverpool (where RECLAIM and others offer a high-degree of support), the figure is closer to 85%.  Whilst there can be no guarantee of success, tenant expectations can be managed without vandalism to the baseline. In contrast to measures such as reclassification, exemption does not impact upon asset value. Moreover, where significant arrears have accrued, exemption (which has retrospective effect from the date of appeal) can provide the best means of recouping rent.

Given the numbers, some frontline staff were anxious that they would lack the capacity to take on so much additional work. However, the existence of a simple referral route, augmented by basic training, went a long-way to addressing these concerns. After all, the landlord will not always be best placed to support a tenant through the process and effective targeting is made problematic when considering the nature of grounds such as room usage.

In practical terms, three landlords are now working with tenants to prepare information whilst all are working with Community Housing Cymru to model material that can be regionally rolled-out through the second tranche of Your Benefits are Changing. Perhaps most significantly, most social landlords present undertook include appeals on the general checklist – a valuable tool prior to undertaking preparation for an expensive (on average 7k) eviction that would be bitterly opposed both in the district court, the local media and on the estate itself!

The official discourse that has come to surround both tenants and social landlords shares several telling similarities. Both are considered feckless; both fail to plan ahead; both are cast as complacent – ruined by an unfortunate addiction to public subsidy. The understanding reached on Friday May 9th not only illustrates how we can begin to move beyond the dented-shield but also suggests the beginning of a new alliance between tenants, local authorities & social landlords.

Jamie Insole is a campaign coordinator and NUJ activist.

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