Spare Room Subsidy or "Bedroom Tax"?

A protest in Surrey earlier this month against the welfare reforms Credit: Dominic Lipinski/PA Wire/Press Association Images

Spare Room Subsidy. It sounds good doesn’t it? Benevolent. Like you are being given something - rather than having something taken away.

But for 660,000 households the reality is that they are having something taken away - 14 per cent of their housing benefit if they are deemed to have one spare bedroom over and above their needs - and 25 per cent for two or more.

There’s no doubt we need to tackle the rising housing benefit bill - more than £17 billion a year and rising.

More than a third of social housing tenants of working age are in homes that the Government says are too big for their needs - and a million ‘extra’ bedrooms are being paid for by the taxpayer. Does that make any sense? Opponents say not really.

Those facing the prospect of paying - or moving - because of their spare rooms think the tax is harsh and unfair.

But don’t people struggling in cramped and overcrowded council accommodation also think it’s unfair if someone who moved into their four bedroom place twenty years ago is still there, long after the rest of the family have flown the nest?

When you have a precious resource like scarce social housing, shouldn’t you make sure it’s really well used to benefit the most people and the people who need it the most?

But the real question is will the Spare Room Subsidy (as the Coalition prefers it to be called) actually achieve what it’s setting out to do? Will it make the situation better? Probably not.

It’s supposed to save money on what many regard as a shockingly high housing benefit bill. But it will only do that if people stay put and pay. If they move to places more appropriate for their needs they won’t be charged.

And there is constant talk of how few smaller properties there are for people to move into. One housing association I spoke to this week told me there were just two one bedroom places available in the whole local area - and for one of them you had to be over 50. The result? Lots and lots of people saying they can’t move - but can’t pay either.

So one of the risks of the policy is that many people stay put and then fall into arrears, risking debt and eviction.

Sovereign Housing Association has some 33,000 properties across the South - and they build a lot of desperately needed affordable homes.

But every penny in lost rent means less for them to spend on desperately needed new builds.

And isn’t that what’s desperately needed here? Not a penalty for under-occupying the properties we do have - but the creation of more new affordable homes. Homes that people on modest incomes can actually afford to live in whether they are on housing benefit or not.

If we’d actually built a few more of those in recent years, under all governments - or simply kept the valuable national housing stock we’ve been selling off since the 1980s - perhaps we wouldn’t be where we are now.