Plea to scrap 'bedroom tax' in small, rural communities
by Claire McGine, Head of Communications

Leading rural network ACRE is calling on the next Government to scrap the ‘bedroom tax’ in rural communities with fewer than 3,000 people.

The charity says there simply aren’t enough one and two-bedroom properties in the countryside for tenants who want to downsize because they can’t afford to pay more rent.

It made the call in its 2015 rural manifesto ahead of a second reading debate next month of a bill to exempt unpaid family carers from the charge.

ACRE – the national voice for England’s network of rural community councils – said it supported the bill but insisted a similar exemption should be made for rural settlements under 3,000.

The under-occupation charge, or bedroom tax, which cuts the benefits of tenants of working age in homes deemed to have spare rooms, came into force in April 2013. Since then, according to a 2014 report from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, evidence broadly suggests that about half of affected tenants have fallen into arrears.

ACRE’s Head of Rural Insight Nick Chase said: “As we move towards two years of the bedroom tax, its impact on rural communities is becoming ever clearer.

“The policy takes no account of the challenges rural tenants face. Those who have stayed put and tried to make up the shortfall were already at a disadvantage; the cost of living in the countryside is around £4,500 a year more than living in an urban area.

“There is evidence that tenants have fallen into arrears, borrowed money to pay the extra or cut back on household essentials.”

Mr Chase said those living in rural areas who wanted to downsize were hampered by the fact that the standard social rented property in rural areas was a three-bedroom house.

“There aren’t enough one and two-bedroom properties in rural areas to meet the demand,” he said. “For example, Coast and Country Housing Association was reported as having 2,500 tenants affected by the under-occupation measures but only 16 one-bed properties in which to place them.”

ACRE acknowledged the Government had made an additional £5m of Discretionary Housing Payment (DHP) available to 21 local authorities in isolated rural areas of the UK to help support housing benefit claimants affected by the policy – but only six of these councils were in England.

Mr Chase added: “There is no obligation on local councils to pay DHP and claimants risk being caught up in a postcode lottery as the Government has left it up to councils to decide how they allocate the funding. For example, Redcar and Cleveland Council has allocated an average of £181 per application, while in Wandsworth the figure is £1,129.

“While we support the efforts being made by current MPs to support the needs of carers and to bring about a review of the availability of affordable housing, it is clear the specific challenges faced by rural communities must be taken into account.

“Our manifesto asks for the tax to be scrapped for communities with population of fewer than 3,000 and we will be urging the next Government to review this unfair policy as quickly as possible.”

The ACRE Network manifesto calls for a fair deal for rural communities, set out in 12 key challenges to the next Government.