Genuine under-occupation needs to be tackled - but it has to be done more sensitively than the government is proposing.
By Kate Webb
Today peers are debating government proposals to cut housing benefit for families judged to be under-occupying their homes. In recent days the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) has been busy promising that ministers will crack down on the "million" spare rooms funded by housing benefit. These last-minute briefings are in response to growing concern among MPs and peers about the damaging impact this measure will have on families.
Shelter knows from the people we see every day that the bureaucratic way in which the DWP defines under-occupation is completely out of touch with the realities of many families' lives. A divorced father is told that his children "do not count" for housing benefit purposes, even if they stay for half the week. It takes no account of couples, often approaching retirement, who are unable to share a bedroom for health reasons. Similarly a disabled child will be denied her own room, or the additional space required to store essential equipment or accommodate a much needed respite carer.
This strict definition of under-occupancy is even at odds with the government's own policy, as outlined by housing minister Grant Shapps, which allows for one spare bedroom in light of circumstances just like these.
The merits of localism which have been much vaunted by ministers will also be undermined by the under-occupancy cut. Local landlords will lose their ability to allocate housing in the way that best meets the needs of families and the local community, because of the risk that any household that requires housing benefit will not be able to pay their rent.
It is common for families with a son and daughter nearing puberty to be given their own bedroom, but this is classed as 'under-occupation' by the DWP. Likewise landlords will be wary of allocating a young couple a two-bedroom flat in anticipation of a growing family. Many landlords have chosen to break-up areas of family sized housing by placing single people in an attempt to reduce anti-social behaviour. This has brought relief for many communities, but would be discouraged under the new system.
The government's welfare reform agenda is designed to simplify the benefits system but this measure will introduce a new level of confusion for many households. Shelter has already been contacted by homeless families waiting in temporary accommodation who will be affected. They cannot understand why their council is telling them to bid for a three-bedroom property to meet their needs, but the DWP says that if they take this they will be fined 15% of their total housing benefit award.
And this is before families are forced into lengthy disputes with their local authority as to whether a windowless box room counts as a spare bedroom.
We agree that genuine under-occupation should be tackled. But this must be done sensitively, recognising the varying needs of different families and the practical difficulties of downsizing.
The under-occupancy cut is not an intelligent attempt to make better use of stock but a blunt tool to deal with a complex issue.
Kate Webb is a policy officer at housing charity Shelter
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