Sunday, 22 September 2013

Right-sizing Social Housing - More Carrot and Less Stick

When is a tax not a tax....? When it doesn't actually levy extra money but instead reduces a benefit on is already getting. The "under-occupancy penalty" does not qualify as a tax by any measure but the media and political class (and the measure's critics) have restyled it as the infamous bedroom tax

This is not to say that we agree with it. The only circumstance in which I could find this totally acceptable would be if the individuals trawled into the penalty's net actually had a realistic way of disposing of their "spare" rooms or moving to accommodation that was right-sized for their needs. When it comes down to it the LibDem policy should be about "right-sizing" the public housing stock, but to do that we need to have a sufficient stock of housing of the right nature in the right places. The penalty, as its name suggests, is a stick not a carrot for tenants to right-size their residential needs without a policy to provide them the means to downsize. 

It might be useful to recap how this works. These changes to the housing benefit came into force on the 1st of April 2013. They included an "under-occupancy penalty" which reduces the amount of benefit paid to claimants if they are deemed to have too much living space in the property they are renting. The size criteria in the social rented sector will restrict housing benefit to allow for one bedroom for each person or couple living as part of the household, with the following exceptions: 

  • Two children under 16 of same gender expected to share 
  • Two children under 10 expected to share regardless of gender 
  • Disabled tenant or partner who needs non-resident overnight carer will be allowed an extra bedroom 
  • Approved foster carers will be allowed an additional room so long as they have fostered a child, or become an approved foster carer in the last 12 months. Adult children in the Armed Forces will be treated as continuing to live at home when deployed on operations. 

In addition, local councils have been advised to allow an extra bedroom for children who are unable to share because of their severe disabilities. 

In a BBC article:

...a Department for Work and Pensions spokesman said: "It is simply not affordable to pay housing benefit for people to have spare rooms. Even after our necessary reforms, we continue to pay over 80% of most claimants' rent if they are affected by the ending of the spare room subsidy.

"We are also giving local authorities £190m funding this year, so vulnerable claimants get the help they need during the welfare reforms."

An important caveat is that the only elderly caught in this net are those over 60 (if 60-65 year olds can be called elderly) who are under the qualifying age for State Pension Credit. This is estimated at 50,000 out of the 660,000 effected by the penalty. 

Therefore the penalty is not even an issue, or so it seems, for the pension-age retirees who may be over-occupying. While it is not a financial issue for them it is an issue for everyone else down the food-chain if there are over-60s under-occupying. As we noted in our musings on the Park Site Home plague, the housing stock for the elderly is a key issue. There we posited a solution for the elderly owner-occupiers of these trailer homes (a New Peabody Trust). The public housing sector is a whole broader can of worms but this issue of under-occupancy is closely linked to the dynamic that is driving the trailer home movement. However while owner-occupier retirees can downsize to smaller apartments or trailers, public housing tenants are trapped with virtually no supply of available units in the size they need.

Part of this problem has to do with the outmoded housing stock in the public housing space. Lets wind back to the 1950s. The social housing was new build for the post-war baby boom, war damage infill and replacement of Victorian tenements. It is somewhat ironic that in the 1950s, society was interested in replacing Victorian slums dating from a mere 60 years beforehand and yet these days, there is little consideration given to replacing a lot of the shoddy 1950s construction (thus 60 years old also) that passes as social housing. Much of it is socially undesirable (ghetto-like estates, high-rises, open balcony corridors etc), highly energy inefficient, outmoded internally (bathrooms, kitchens etc), high maintenance for councils and housing associations and fundamentally not "fit for purpose".  Too much of the talk is about building new units (which are undoubtedly needed in the net unit numbers required to be added) and yet there is virtually no discussion of re-utilising the existing stock. By that we are implying the land in many cases NOT the housing stock. Britain's social housing stock needs a rebuild. 

Thus to summarise what a policy might look like for public housing we should be embracing:

  • Reconstruction: basically demolishing all post-war social housing that is not up to a given standard OR that is too low density and could be replaced with more suitable, denser (and greener) housing with specific tenant groups being identified and catered to. 
  • Reconfiguration: More smaller units because these will liberate the larger units with a trickle down (or up) effect. 
  • Refurbishment: This should not only be internally, but also externally. The Bauhaus aesthetic gave us not only Goldfinger- (Erno not Bond) inspired monstrosities but also the economic exigencies of the 1950s involved low-grade, shoddy (and moreover non-durable) building materials. Unsightly was not just an outcome, it was a goal. Today vast tracts of Britain are testament to a prefab mentality. This was an understandable exigency of those times but is not set in stone (or pebble-dash) forever.    
In synthesis this is the "rightsizing" of social housing.

Nick Clegg is perceived by many as continuing to defend the tax, though rightly he has pointed out that 250,000 families have been living in overcrowded accommodation while one million tenants have spare bedrooms. He justifiably claimed the Coalition was simply applying the same principle to the social rented sector as Labour applied to the private rented sector.

Meanwhile Labour are claiming that two-thirds of the 66,000 people affected are disabled, and say that the vast majority do not have the option of moving into smaller accommodation. The former flies in the face of the exemptions that we previously listed. Labour's plan to cancel the penalty, interestingly, has been costed at as much as £470m, though Labour said the costs can be met by closing tax loopholes in the construction industry. We are all for that. We wonder though, that as LibDems in government, why we had not insisted that if the funds raised ("saved" would be more accurate) from the penalty are £470m then why didn't we corral them into a special purpose fund for constructing one bedroom units to solve the problem. Where did the funds go? The slushfund of general revenue?

In conclusion I thought I might expound slightly on two examples of wrong-sizing (with reconstruction and reconfiguration overtones) that can be found in my immediate vicinity, though I wouldn't call my area needy in even my wildest imagination. But that is what makes the two cases somewhat more egregious because it touches on other issues like "fitness for purpose", screwy planning rules and Park Site Homes (where an encampment is right nearby). 

The first one is around 1/2 mile from me. It sits on the edge of the village/town/planning abomination of around 4,000 people, known as Colden Common. Here is a foto:

What we have is a half-acre lot with four non-detached micro-residences. Said plot has views of forest on one side and horse farms on the other stands on the junction of two minor roads (but with typical planning aplomb the "residences" don't face either forest or farm, but instead face the road junction). A bus to Eastleigh runs right by, so potentially very good for those needing public transport. This is part of the Winchester City area (with sometime LibDem domination). Looking at these we can alas only describe them as hovels. If you think the frontage looks narrow then take our word for it that the structure is only 12-15 feet deep. The vintage looks to be mid-1960s at the latest, but could very well be mid-1950s.  

Clearly what we have here is wasted opportunity. The scandal of such a squandering of a lot is the almost constant battle in Winchester to turn farmland into residential land (particularly because the city itself is abutted on the East side by the hyper-restrictive South Downs National Park). And yet here we have a prime lot designated residential that is occupied by these four hovels that should be demolished and a three-story 24-unit complex of one bedroom apartments might be built to replace them. What is the maths here? Pretty simple. Four micro-residences of substantial age, dubious habitability and no aesthetic value, on a large plot that have eight residents at most, could be replaced by an aesthetically pleasing, 100% modern complex that could be occupied by up to 48 residents, thus freeing up somewhere or other multiple-bedroom properties that the transferred residents might currently occupy. 

Then we have the second case... this is not so spacious in terms of land but a rather egregious example once again of mediocre housing from the past. This one (pictured below)

This is a further one mile down the road in Allbrook on the outskirts of Eastleigh. Looks all very nice, but what is the context? This is a street of terraced Victorian houses that once comprised the village (?) of Allbrook, before Eastleigh subsumed it. For some reason, in the 1950s there must have been a gap in the terraces or somesuch and so the town shoved into the gap five (by my count) non-detached hovels. They are rather hard to see here because unlike the rest of the street they are set at the back of the block (next to the busy Southampton to London railway line!) rather than the front, but trust me.. they are hovels. Poor construction, flat roofs... all the best of public housing circa 1955. 

Clearly these have also had their day. If we really wanted to push the envelope there could probably be 15 units (on three floors) on this site or being non-aggressive one could have them with two-floors like the terraced neighbours, in which case the number of occupants could be at least doubled and the micro-residences taken from quasi-slum to something more habitable. 

So the LibDem policy should have way less stick and way more carrot. The first step along this road would be corralling the funds from the under-occupancy penalty towards an economy-stimulating construction program of one-bedroom social housing (by destroying outmoded existing units) that would liberate larger units for reallocation. Sound complicated?



  1. Interesting one... see this document..

    Top of page 9 shows that the benefit cut is GBP12 per week for one bedroom, on average. Clearly if one has in a lodger the amount that one would be collecting in sub-let rent would be GBP100 to maybe as high as GBP250 per month depending on the area..a significant income boost indeed and substantially mitigating the penalty paid.