Communities are being pulled apart by the bedroom tax as people struggle to ‘survive’ its effects, says a leading academic at Newcastle University.Dr Suzanne Moffatt says a new study undermines Government claims that implementing the ‘removal of the spare room subsidy’ in April 2013 would not have a detrimental impact on people’s health and well-being.
Published today in the Journal of Public Health (16 March 2015), the research shows that people affected by the bedroom tax are finding it impossible to manage ever-decreasing incomes, with many spiralling into debt and rent arrears in order to afford bare essentials.
As part of their research, Dr Moffatt’s team also took each of the Government’s suggestions for mitigating the effects of the bedroom tax: downsizing, taking in a lodger, getting a job or increasing working hours - and found them all nearly impossible to achieve.
The North East, where the research was carried out, is disproportionately affected by the ‘under-occupancy tax’ (or ‘bedroom tax’ as it is more commonly known) with some 50,000 households estimated to be ‘under-occupying’.
Social housing provider Your Homes Newcastle (YHN) reported in January 2014 that 66% of people affected by the bedroom tax were in rent arrears.
Residents were finding it increasingly difficult to buy simple, basic foodstuffs and in some extreme cases, cutting down to just one meal a day, or going to bed early to evade hunger and keep warm – a pattern more prevalent among parents to ensure their children were properly fed.
“A few pounds literally made the difference between falling into debt or not,” says Dr Moffatt. “Budgeting advice was offered by service providers but this could not address the underlying problem that many residents simply had insufficient money to meet basic needs.
“Monumental effort was put in by people to simply ‘survive’. Their accounts powerfully demonstrate how loss of income as a result of the bedroom tax has a detrimental effect on mental health, with many saying it had left them feeling ‘hopeless’.”
The research paper ‘A qualitative study of the impact of the UK ‘bedroom tax’ looked at the effects on health and well-being; social relationships and the wider community. It followed people living in Walker, Newcastle upon Tyne, which is in the top 10% most deprived areas of the UK. Around 650 households in this study area were affected by the bedroom tax.
“The bedroom tax reduces a home to simply bricks and mortar,” explains Dr Moffatt. “However, these are homes that people invest in over time, places of safety within communities that offer friendship and support. As a consequence, many of those we interviewed elected to pay the tax in order to stay in their homes, resulting in cutting back on essentials such as food and heat to do so.
“Rather than improve housing stock efficiency and save tax payers money, the effect of the bedroom tax in the North East is likely to make the distribution of social housing less efficient, encouraging a short-term approach that is unsustainable and disrupts communities.”
Researchers within Newcastle University’s Institute of Health and Society also looked at the Your Homes Newcastle pilot intervention set up in response to the introduction of the bedroom tax in an attempt to mitigate a predicted increase in evictions and homelessness.
Neil Scott, Director of Tenancy Services at YHN, says: “In addition to offering emotional support, there were clear financial successes gained, for example through Discretionary Housing Payments (DHP) and back-dated benefits.
“We also encouraged residents to enrol onto training courses. For those that took part, it was highly beneficial, with a small number of mainly short-term jobs created within our organisation.”
The pilot ran for seven months from September 2013 to April 2014 and included budgeting and housing advice, with a primary focus on testing the Government’s hypothesis that work pays by supporting residents who were farthest from the labour market to gain employment.
“Although this pilot was fantastic for those involved, one person working over seven months can only achieve so much,” says Dr Moffatt. “At a time when local authority budgets are being increasingly tightened, it is always going to be difficult to fund interventions of this kind but it needs to be done, and on a long-term basis, for any lasting effects to be felt. There is no ‘quick fix’ solution.
“These people are not languishing around on benefits by any means – they face many complex barriers to employment such the poor state of the local labour market, as well as mental or physical health issues and lack of qualifications."
Most people taking part in the study did not consider their home as ‘too large for their needs’ as many needed the flexibility to accommodate family, e.g. accommodating children in part-time custodial arrangements, siblings of different ages and needs, or having room for carers or couples who sleep apart due to health problems.
There is a shortfall of one-bedroomed properties in the North East, which seriously limits options to downsize, with estimates of four households competing for each property. “The reality is that residents did not have the money to pay the bedroom tax but could not easily re-locate to avoid paying it,” explains Dr Moffatt.
The Government’s other suggestion of taking in a lodger raises issues about legal contracts and also a loss of privacy, along with safeguarding issues, particularly in homes with children and vulnerable adults.
In addition, at 10%, the North East currently has the highest unemployment rate in England and a lack of full-time jobs paying a living wage. Despite this and other barriers to work such as lack of qualifications and affordable childcare, a strong desire to work was expressed by the majority of residents, including those with physical disabilities and chronic health problems.
Deputy Leader of Newcastle City Council, Cllr Joyce McCarty, says: “The bedroom tax, more than any other policy, shows how austerity is targeting the poorest people in society and hitting them hardest.
“It is creating a sense of hopelessness where people are struggling to eat and keep warm in order to try and pay this tax to keep a roof over their head – that is pernicious and inhumane, and it’s hardly surprising that it’s affecting people’s health.
?“I am proud that by working together on this project, Newcastle City Council and Newcastle University have shone a light on the damaging consequences of this disgraceful policy which like the poll tax will hopefully be consigned to the dustbin.”
This in-depth qualitative study, believed to be the first of its kind, was commissioned by Newcastle City Council and supported by funding from the Newcastle University’s Institute for Social Renewal and the city council.
End of project report: ImpactoftheBedroomTaxinWalker
published on: 16 March 2015