19 Sep 2013

How to beat the ‘bedroom tax’

Scotland Correspondent

Social housing tenants in Fife are using housing law from the 1980s to successfully challenge demands for extra rent under the so-called bedroom tax.

In the box room of a mid-terrace council house in Glenrothes, David Nelson has his tape measure out.

“I make that 7.8 by 8.5 feet. So 66.3 square feet,” he says proudly.

David doesn’t really need to look at the measurements. He knows them by heart. These numbers now save him £11 per week.

“I appealed to the council first of all because I didn’t think it was fair I was paying the bedroom tax on my box room,” he says.

This gives hope to all the other tenants out there who are suffering at the hands of this policy. David Nelson, social housing tenant

“When the appeal was rejected I took it to a tribunal.”

What happened next may have implications for tens of thousands of social housing tenants across the UK.

David Nelson who challenged the bedroom tax and won (Channel 4 News)

David argued his spare room was too small to constitute a bedroom for the purposes of what its critics call the “bedroom tax”, and the tribunal agreed.

“I was pretty shocked to tell the truth,” David says.

“I’m absolutely delighted to have won and I believe this gives hope to all the other tenants out there who are suffering at the hands of this policy.”

So how did he do it?

Too small

It was all pretty simple.

David and his solicitor, Graeme Sutherland, convinced the tribunal the size of his spare room fell below the minimum for an adult bedroom.

The legislation which underpins the so-called “bedroom tax” says nothing about room size, so the tribunal judge reached for the 1987 Housing Act (it’s the 1985 Housing Act in England and Wales) which says an adult bedroom should be no smaller than 70 square feet.

As a result, the charge on David’s spare room was rescinded and he is £11 per week better off.

Read more: Tenants in arrears 'because of bedroom tax'

Although the government has been at pains to point out the ruling does not set a legal precedent, Fife council leader Alex Rowley said he was taking legal advice on whether to apply the ruling across the board. In Fife alone, it would allow 2,000 households to escape under-occupation penalties.

A Department for Work and Pensions spokesperson said its welfare reforms were helping to get to grips with the rising housing benefit bill.

But the Fife tribunals may also have thrown up other possible grounds for appeal.

Just as welfare reform legislation does not spell out the size of a bedroom, it does not define what a bedroom is either.

Annie Harrower-Gray who challenged the bedroom tax and won (Channel 4 News)

In the case of Annie Harrower-Gray, the tribunal ruled that two bedrooms subject to under-occupation penalties had been incorrectly defined by her housing provider.

It determined neither room was a bedroom, since this was not their “long-established use.” One room is, in fact, a sitting room.

The government says it has noted the outcome of the tribunals and is considering its position.

More hearings are scheduled in the coming weeks. The Fife tribunals have proved that tenants have every chance of winning.

Is your bedroom a bedroom?
According to the 1987 Housing (Scotland) Act the minimum size of a bedroom is:
- 110 sq. ft. for 2 adults
- 70 sq. ft. for 1 adult
- 50 sq. ft. for a child

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