Monday, 23 September 2013

Bunk up or bunk off?

Cameron and Clegg’s bedroom tax is a classic example of a policy which, superficially, looks logical but, in practice, is pernicious.

Many councils and housing associations had schemes which encouraged and sensitively enabled people to move to smaller accommodation when they were ready to do so. But now the carrots have been thrown away and been replaced by a tax stick.

If the alleged justification for the bedroom tax is principled – ‘we shouldn’t be subsidising a spare room’ – you only have to ask why the policy doesn’t apply to pensioners to see that that line doesn’t stack up.

The government has been desperate to present an image of those being hit by the tax as single idlers rattling around in large houses. The truth is very different. 416,000 of the 660,000 households being hit have a resident with a disability, including more than 75,000 in Yorkshire and Humberside and the East Midlands.

The other argument for the bedroom tax is that it will free up accommodation for other families. Except that in most areas there simply isn’t smaller accommodation that can be offered. And now we’re healing squeals from Conservative MPs saying that rural areas should be exempt from the bedroom tax because there is little alternative accommodation – but that’s no less true in urban areas.

Where there is some accommodation, it is mostly in the private sector with higher rents than the property being vacated, which defeats the government’s objective of saving money. In fact, there is now a real risk that the bedroom tax will end up costing more than it saves. The National Audit Office says that the government has got its sums wrong.

The real cost of the bedroom tax is overwhelmingly going to be paid by households containing households with disabilities. On average, they will lose £720 a year. Most of the small minority who can move will have to shell out a small fortune in removal and re-settlement costs. But there’s a lot more pain than just the cost. The Chief Executive of the National Housing Federation has described the policy as “an unfair, ill-planned disaster that is hurting our poorest families.”

The best way of tackling the growing housing crisis is to build more affordable homes to buy and to let, not by penalising those households who have the least choice.


While the summer can often be a quiet time for the news cycle, it would appear that Eric Pickles has been trying to break the monotony with a range of tips for councils

First, he told us about the support for local high streets, and announced ‘dedicated teams of experts’ to assist local leaders. Now, on that very same day, the CLG Committee took evidence from Mary Portas, the government-appointed high street renewal guru, backed with £1.2m for Portas Pilots. Strangely, we learn that, despite her requests, Ms Portas has never met Mr Pickles and she knew absolutely nothing about the new training and mentoring proposals. How curious?

Then, he moved on to parking. Mr Pickles’ has an ambition for ‘shoppers to have a 15 minute grace period to park on double yellow lines without penalty’. The proposal has been condemned by a wide range of organizations, but this wasn’t mentioned. He referred rather disparagingly to the income that councils receive from parking charges and fines. Yet, that same day, the Federation of Small Businesses published its research on this issue, which confirmed that such income has actually fallen in real terms over the last 5 years.

As he directed public anger towards parking policies and traffic wardens, one might have thought that Mr Pickles would be desperate to draw our attention to the one council, Aberystwyth, that axed its traffic wardens to save money and to placate the drivers who railed against them. Of course, within 6 months - after parking chaos, road rage and fisticuffs, congestion and regular gridlocks – everyone was demanding their return. Perhaps that explains the silence?

Mr Pickles then turned his attention to the fire service…. or rather, firefighters’ pensions. Not unimportant, of course. However, there was complete silence about the scale of the cuts being made in fire service cover throughout the country. How curious?

Next, Mr Pickles told us about his planned tax changes for granny annexes. Gosh, it’s great news, he told us, for all those households – nearly all in the top council tax bands and containing quite a few mansions – who will receive an average near £500 cut in council tax. However, he was completely silent about the higher council tax bills being imposed on millions of the poorest families by cutting funding for council tax benefit. Why, I wondered?

Then he turned his attention to those naughty councils that had increased their cash reserves. Mind you, he didn’t mention that reserves had fallen in a quarter of councils, nor that the vast majority of the increased total related to already ear-marked schemes. Never mind, perhaps he missed the comments of CIPFA and other professional bodies which didn’t share his perspective.

Of course, his support for coastal towns is welcome; that extra 5% in the £29m fund could make all the difference. But, for some reason there was no mention of the huge additional challenges facing many of those coastal towns – especially in Essex and Kent – which have suddenly found themselves having to cope with an influx of households being forced out of central London by benefit changes.

Then, why not raise a glass to celebrate that 100 pubs have been listed as assets of community value? Let’s just forget that, over the past 2 years, the number of pub closures has risen from 12 to 18 a week, and more than 200 pubs have been turned into shops.

We should all welcome the increase in new home starts. But, there’s no reference to his decision to cut the budget for investment in affordable housing by 60%, nor that housing completions are at their peacetime lowest level since the 1920s.

More worryingly, Mr Pickles is lauding the Help to Buy scheme. Why is it that just about every serious research body, right across the political spectrum, is unanimous in saying not just that this scheme is wrong, but that it’s positively dangerous? The very last thing we should be doing is fueling inflation in a still over-priced market and, thus, actually disabling even more families from becoming owner-occupiers.

Of course, I’m pleased that Mr Pickles is helping a few councils with homelessness. But, why no acknowledgement that homelessness is on an upward trend as a direct result of the policies he’s implemented?

Unsurprisingly, last year’s obsession with refuse collection made a re-appearance. But, I searched in vain for the sentence “I’ve wasted a quarter of a billion pounds of public money trying to persuade councils to move back to weekly rubbish collections, but only one did so.”

Who said the summer can be a dull time for news?