A council, Welwyn & Hatfield, unilaterally decides any room with a floor space of less than 50 square feet is not a bedroom. If one council can do this then so can every other council.
Bristol and Nottingham social landlords state the same. If a couple of social landlords can do this they so can every social landlord.
The size of a room that qualifies as a bedroom has always been as controversial as the bedroom tax policy itself; more importantly it is the one issue social landlords would remain inside Pandora’s box, yet it has now escaped and significantly so. Yet the bedroom tax is a national policy that HAS to be applied equally across the country and cannot mean one thing in one area and another thing in another area.
Yet HB regulations don’t work that way and shouldn’t.
We have a classic example of that at the moment with a council in Anglesey ruling that a night shelter is not eligible to receive Housing Benefit and this decision after going through the tribunal process has seen other councils withdraw HB for night shelters in Blackpool and Salford. That is how the HB system works (and despite this being an outrageous ruling.)
The Welwyn case is very significant indeed. Just the fact that the council recognises it is their decision is significant as many councils have stated errantly that it is up to the landlord to define a bedroom and the number of them, something those same Councils know is not the case for private landlords – and of course the HB regulations can’t apply differently for a private landlord and a social landlord on such a matter of principle. Yet Council after Council have disingenuously stated it is up to the landlord in response to bedroom tax policy challenges from tenant claimants and because it was easier and very much cheaper for Councils to merely accept the landlords word when they made the decisions.
This is one major reason why I have always maintained the bedroom tax decision-making process was and is a sham and why every tenant claimant has legitimate grounds to appeal the bedroom tax on this sham process.
Social landlords have largely adopted a we want our cake and eat it position – they want the flexibility to reclassify down the bedroom number in difficult to let properties (KHT, Leeds etc) as the bedroom tax makes them impossible to let properties, yet are fearful of council HB departments doing their job and classifying them in this way. Make no mistake what is a bedroom and how many bedrooms a property has – the two determinations the bedroom tax policy necessitates -are decisions for council HB officers and nobody else.
Yet that social landlord position and errant Council responses are both duplicitous and cannot hold.
Whether social landlords like it or not, reclassification is now a huge live issue across social housing and social landlords have a decision to make. Do they embark on a widescale reclassification as I advocated they should and would be in their financial interests to do so; OR do they sit back and allow their local Councils to decide each case on its merits? The latter could also see Councils deciding that any room 50 to 70 square feet is half a bedroom and could leave HB departments free to reduce rents. That is a nightmare scenario for social landlords who want to keep control of rent setting policy by ensuring that their rents are met by Housing Benefit.
I see widescale reclassification as inevitable for social landlords and they can’t take the huge risk that Councils will reclassify for them. It may only be 2 or 3% of social landlord stock which has rooms smaller than 50 square feet and despite this being about 100,000 properties if Councils were to rule that 50 to 70 square feet is only half a bedroom then this may affect 20% to 30% of properties – as many as a million social homes.
This is where social landlords have been disingenuous too in the bedroom tax. They have given the impression they cannot reclassify as they will lose the full rent differential between a 3 bed and a 2 bed if they did reclassify. That argument has always been a nonsense. There is rightfully a difference between a 2 bed and a 2 bed with a small boxroom and a 2 bed with a large boxroom and that size difference has to be reflected in the amount of HB that a Council will pay.
So something has to give and the bedroom tax decisions have to be looked at again.
The bedroom tax decisions were a sham and were evidence of an ease of administrative cost approach by councils and landlords and worked, they thought, to their mutual financial advantage. Yet these will now work to their cost as all challenges and appeals that have cited bedroom size may likely be upheld as by the day more and more councils look at this issue and rule they are not bedrooms.
I note today the Sunday papers are saying “A series of councils are now classifying rooms of under 50 sq ft as box rooms – sparing tenants from the tax” and while Sunday papers views can often be taken with a pinch of salt with their wide journalistic licence it is of note that they say correctly that COUNCILS are classifying not landlords.
It only takes one tribunal ruling in any town or city to say the bedroom tax decision was wrongfully taken by a council not looking at the size of a bedroom to mean all council decisions in any town or city were wrongfully decided. It only takes one tribunal ruling to say that the council holding to a line of it is up tot the landlord to define to be proved as the nonsense it is and always was for all decisions in that area to be found against.
Yes the bedroom tax is a mess for councils and landlords which they brought on themselves by ignoring bedroom size. Councils never asked landlords for this information which they should have (or for other information such as whether a claimed ‘bedroom’ contained a gas fire or boiler) and so councils took decisions in ignorance of the facts and they cannot hold. Landlords never volunteered this information and didn’t provide it and instead relied on a wing and a prayer of the 1985 Act not being included as statutory interpretation or ignorance or denial of the 1998 HSE guidance by councils and others legislation and guidance.
Now how can Coventry City Council and social landlord Midland Heart I am reliably informed maintain that a room measuring 8 feet 2 inches by 4 feet 3 inches, a whopping 35 square feet, is a bedroom? Of course they cannot when councils are ruling anything under 50 square feet cannot be a bedroom! That case explains better than any narrative just how much landlords and councils colluded in the bedroom tax and simply sought to shaft the tenant at thee bottom of the pile. It always has been bloody offensive.
The tenant has said enough is enough and kicked up a fuss, a deserved fuss, and the tide is changing greatly. Yes it is the coalition policy that created this farce, a pernicious and bad policy at that, but that doesn’t excuse landlords and councils from shafting the tenant.
The Welwyn position is the beginning of the end of the bedroom tax and not before time!