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Kathleen Kelly Headshot

Abolish the Bedroom Tax?

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It's no surprise that media coverage of the UN Special Rapporteur's press conference today has leapt on a recommendation to abolish the spare room subsidy, also referred to as the 'bedroom tax'. If only it were all that simple.

Ms Rolnik is right to flag the good record of the UK on the right to adequate housing - largely as a result of the UK's social housing system. That's the really important point here which is under serious threat.

Newsworthy and important as it is to flag injustices of key policies, I hope Ms Rolnik's report to the UN in March 2014 will be able to look at bigger system failures too. For example the four cycles of boom and bust in the housing market which mean we haven't built enough homes to meet housing needs for decades. This in turn has pushed house prices and rents out of reach. Yesterday's report form TCPA highlights how 245k new homes per year is still only a glint in our eyes.

There's no doubt that the ending of the spare room subsidy is poorly implemented and takes no account of the realities of local housing markets. It also comes at a time when there are simply not enough homes to go round. Reforms have pushed social rents up and, in some cases, limited people's security of tenure - ostensibly to fund more homes at precisely the same time as downward pressure on benefits when household and Government budgets are already squeezed.

That where's the UN is absolutely right to flag housing as part of the right to an adequate standard of living. I've blogged before about the fact that even prior to the spare room subsidy, 3 million more people were pushed into poverty by their housing costs - a problem which has been growing for 20 years. We also know that the minimum household budget for a family of four has gone up 25% over the last five years at a time of stagnant wages.

JRF research recommends limiting rent increases, keeping a focus on maintaining good housing conditions and monitoring the impacts of welfare reform if we're to have any chance of using housing policy as a buffer against poverty.

It's crucial that we protect the UK's good record on housing, which has seen social housing highlighted as the 'saving grace' of social security system because of its record of improving housing conditions and lower rents. Having established that position we need to avoid forcing people to choose between having a roof, heating or eating.

Ending the spare room penalty - or at least implementing it more sensibly - would improve the financial position of those affected. But if we don't tackle the wider failures in the UK housing system we won't get away from a system that increasingly risks locking people in poverty out of decent housing.