Thousands of North East families are facing a bedroom tax bill of almost £20m, new figures reveal.
By August – four months after the controversial spare room subsidy policy was introduced – nearly 30,000 of the region’s households had been hit by the new fees.
Each faces losing out on an average of £679.14 in housing benefits each year – though the picture is worse for people in County Durham, Newcastle and Sunderland, which are among the top 10 hardest-hit areas in the UK.
“The bedroom tax is raised by constituents time and time again, who are being penalised for a situation not of their own making and who simply can’t afford to pay,” said Newcastle North MP Catherine McKinnell.
“These new figures illustrate the appalling impact this pernicious policy is having on many thousands of families across the region – with the extra £680 per year an almost impossible ask for people on low incomes already struggling with a cost of living crisis.”
Responding to the figures, the National Housing Federation claimed that 51% of households affected by the bedroom tax were unable to pay their rent between April and June.
Disabled people are particularly hard-hit by the policy, with about 31,500 disabled people affected in the North East.
But a spokesman for the DWP said that it has given an extra £5,382,375 in funding to councils to make discretionary payments to help those struggling to pay.
Northumberland has received £416,365, Newcastle £685,271, Durham £883,089, Gateshead £373,518, North Tyneside £331,993, South Tyneside £305,483 and Sunderland £658,202.
She also said that, in July, the Government announced a further £35m pot, which local councils can bid for.
“The removal of the spare room subsidy is a necessary reform that will return fairness to housing benefit,” she said.
“And we have given councils £190m to make sure those in need, including disabled people, are supported through welfare reforms and we are confident the pot will provide the right help for claimants.
“Even after the reform, we still pay the majority of most claimants’ rent, but the taxpayer can no longer afford to pay for spare bedrooms.”
Berwick Lib Dem MP Sir Alan Beith said it was only fair to treat social housing tenants in the same way as benefit recipients who live in private rented accommodation – though large numbers of people hit by the policy were in need of help.
“People who depend on housing benefit and rent in the private sector only get help for the number of bedrooms they need, a change which was brought in by the Labour Government, and the Coalition is applying the same principle to subsidised social housing,” he said.
“However, there are a lot of people who have special needs because of disability or who would like to downsize but cannot find alternative housing – and nearly one third of affected households in Northumberland are receiving this funding.”
But even with the funding, that still means a near £13.5m must be found by families, many of whom have no option but to remain in their current home as no smaller one is available.
“The policy makes no sense,” said Ms McKinnell, Labour’s shadow economic secretary to the Treasury. “There are nowhere near sufficient smaller properties for people to move to, and it therefore does nothing to address overcrowding.
“Or – for the thousands of disabled people affected – they clearly need an additional bedroom as it can often be totally impractical for a couple to share in these circumstances.”
Julie Pörksen, Sir Alan’s would-be Lib Dem successor, agreed.
“The policy does not take into account variations in local housing supply, especially in rural areas, and rural residents should not be penalised when they are unable to move to smaller homes locally,” said the prospective parliamentary candidate, who has previously called for an assessment of whether the tax is actually delivering cost savings and tackling under-occupancy. “People across the North East should not be punished because of London’s housing crisis, she added.
The National Housing Federation’s North East external affairs manager Monica Burns called for the policy to be repealed.
“These new Government figures show that the bedroom tax is affecting thousands of people in the North East – for many, there isn’t even anywhere for them to downsize to. There simply aren’t enough smaller social homes available, and the cost of private rented housing is rising.
“The North East is particularly hard-hit, with the highest proportion of people living in social housing affected by the bedroom tax in the country. The Government says discretionary housing payments will help those who cannot downsize, but there isn’t anywhere near enough money.
“The bedroom tax is trapping many people in homes they can no longer afford and where they are struggling. It is unfair, badly designed, and must be repealed.”