Why the bedroom tax is clouding the Scottish housing debate

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The hugely controversial bedroom tax has clouded the fact that more families are facing higher housing costs and rising levels of poverty in private rented homes. 

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30th April 2014 by TFN Guest 0 Comments

Jim McCormick, Scotland adviser to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation

Jim McCormick, Scotland adviser to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation

The focus of debate on housing during the referendum campaign has been dominated by the under-occupancy charge, or the so-called bedroom tax.

While there have been significant steps to mitigate its impact, both sides must not lose sight of another trend: more families facing higher housing costs and rising levels of poverty in private rented homes. 

This prospect was captured in a recent Joseph Rowntree Foundation report on housing and low income in Scotland by the New Policy Institute. The conclusion was unequivocal: whatever the referendum outcome, failing to act on these stark trends will see Scotland’s poverty rate rise. 

Since devolution, Scotland has had control over its housing policy. The trends in homelessness show how this has been used effectively to benefit vulnerable households but while the approach taken to tackling homelessness in Scotland has been different to that taken in England, the shift of poverty toward the private rented sector (PRS) is the same.

In 2013, the Scottish Government produced a strategy for the PRS, outlining how it could be improved through regulation and investment. 

Whatever the referendum outcome, failing to act on these stark trends will see Scotland’s poverty rate rise

The strategy explicitly acknowledged that growing numbers of vulnerable people were living in the PRS, including “low-income households who cannot access social housing and therefore privately rent but often encounter affordability issues”. The recognition that this group is in need of support, in particular with the cost of housing, is welcome.

The bedroom tax has been the focus of debate given its timeliness: pledges have been made by parties on both sides of the debate to scrap it in the future. But this so-called tax only affects those in the social rented sector (the spare room subsidy was removed from the PRS some time ago in the UK). 

A similar degree of consensus around affordability and quality of housing in the private sector will be needed in Scotland in the years following the referendum, whatever the outcome.

Jim McCormick is Scotland adviser to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation.