One afternoon towards the end of July, a man in a Runcorn benefit office declared himself to be “sick of this shit” before cutting his own throat in front of council staff. His self-administered injuries weren't fatal, but his is the latest in a string of incidents that have seen vulnerable people turn to self harm or suicide over changes made to the benefits system by the coalition government (it's worth adding that most of these changes haven't been opposed outright by the Labour Party).
Liverpool is Ground Zero for what the government calls an "under-occupancy penalty" and everyone else calls the bedroom tax. Under the policy, which came into effect in April, any tenant in social housing with one "spare" bedroom loses 14 percent of their housing benefit. For two or more spare rooms, they lose 25 percent.
Over 26,000 tenants are affected by the penalty on Merseyside, a shocking two thirds of whom are disabled. The government wants tenants under-occupying their homes to downsize, which might prove difficult with only around 400 one-bedroom homes becoming available each year in the city region. Riverside Housing Association reported in May that only 25 percent of tenants affected had been able to pay the penalty, with 50 percent paying nothing at all. Across Merseyside, 14,167 households fell into arrears between April and May – 6,000 of those for the first time. (A fuller look at the stats is here.)
It comes as no surprise, then, that Merseyside is a national hotspot of anti-bedroom tax activism. The area has seen organised demonstrations, mass appeals aimed at clogging the arteries of council bureaucracy, non-payment and the occupation of homes and blockading of streets to provide physical barriers to eviction squads. I arranged to meet up with one of the small groups at the heart of the movement, Reclaim.
I’m met by Juliet Edgar and Mick Bennett in the upstairs rooms of a pub in Liverpool's predominantly working class Kirkdale district, which they use to run surgeries for benefit claimants. The group have just produced a new advice leaflet on appealing punitive benefit sanctions imposed by the Jobcentre.
From the balcony you have a clear view of the remaining docks on the Mersey. Brutalist tower blocks, the last vestiges of 1960s municipal socialism, spring as occasional absurdities in a mismatched landscape of Victorian terraces and more modern bungalows. You can just make out the regenerated areas of the city’s financial district and the shopping centre Liverpool One in the distance.
The One Park West building in central Liverpool, a block of apartments in the same complex as the Liverpool One shopping centre.
Over tea, Juliet tells me how an old slogan has become a grim statement of fact: “Basically the introduction of the bedroom tax means that people on the lowest incomes who are receiving, if they’re lucky, £71.50 in JSA or ESA a week, face a reduction of between £12 and £28. Out of that meagre benefit it’s not a matter of 'won’t pay’, it’s a matter of people 'can’t pay'.”
With her daughter graduated and moved out, Juliet has found herself on the receiving end of the measure: “I live in a two-bedroom house in Crosby which is £85 per week. If I move to a one-bed private sector flat my rent will be £92 per week. That adds up. It’s perverse.”
At least half of the volunteers here are tenants affected by the policy. Mark Ray, who I interrupt in the midst of secretarial work, says, “I've got a three bedroom, for my daughter and my son who come and stay with me. They’ve now said those are spare bedrooms, despite the fact they offered me the place knowing I had two kids and was otherwise a single man living on my own.”
The group is bustling with activity, largely occupied with organising appeals against punitive housing benefit decisions and putting in applications for what is called Discretionary Housing Payment, or DHP – a £60m fund available for tenants who can’t make ends meet. This is partly about tenants exercising their legal rights, but is also a form of direct action on the part of Reclaim to clog up the administrative system. Since May they have submitted over 200 appeals.
Christine (above), a disabled tenant, has shown up for help applying for DHP. “I have one extra bedroom for my daughter who stays over three nights a week. Sometimes, if I’m in and out of hospital, she stays for weeks. I need that room for her and my grand-daughter who stays with her.
“The community I live in is good, they all muck in. If my son and daughter are ever not there, someone will phone an ambulance for me and look after me. I really don’t want to be moved out but I can’t afford the extra money. I suffer from depression and I’m feeling suicidal over all this. I am in arrears and I couldn’t move if I wanted to. If you’re in arrears you can’t get a house to downsize to.
“I feel like standing on top of a building and threatening to throw myself off for somebody to listen. The government are treating us as if we’re living in mansions. We’re not, we’re living in little box houses. My main bedroom… I can’t even fit a wardrobe in.
“This is about standing up against the government.”
Dot, another tenant applying for DHP, agrees. “Like everyone else I’m fed up with it. It’s stupid. I lived in this house for 27 years and the kids have moved out. My husband died last year. Why should I have to move? I don’t want to move. My family are all up here.
“They’d have to drag me out and put me in a box. It’s causing a lot of people stress; suicides. Why should you have to feel that way, that there’s no end to it? Pleasing the top knobs aren’t you, that’s all.”
A block of flats in Croxteth.
The bedroom tax is a particularly pernicious policy for Merseyside. During the last century its levels of population decline have been more like those seen in Detroit or Baltimore than any UK city. Although housing waiting lists have been growing, the problem of homeless families languishing in expensive B&B accommodation does not exist here. Joe Halewood, a professional housing consultant and blogger, says that’s going to change with the volume of evictions to come:
“To keep a family in a B&B temporary accommodation, which will be Liverpool City Council's duty, will cost between £400 and £600 a week, all for the sake of £700 a year bedroom tax that they can't pay. The stress that those families will go through will be horrendous.”
Joe worries about the knock-on impact of removing money from communities that are hardly affluent in the first place: “What will happen at a very practical level is a tenant will not pop out to the local shop. The local businesses will go under, local shops when they close, areas get run down. You get a general community malaise.”
The surgery is beginning to wind down. “Reclaim have been brilliant. I was the first to come here for bedroom tax. We’d be lost without it,” says Dot. Katie, who's also applying for DHP to cover her bedroom tax shortfall, impresses upon me how the group deals with the isolation of living alone and receiving red letter demands for arrears payments: “I live on my own. I enter a space where I don’t think I can do it on my own.” She likens the group to a fire escape in a burning building.
I ask Joe if this is a case of the community stepping in where the state has retreated: “I wish that were true. In April, legal aid for welfare benefits stopped. There's only really Citizens Advice that people can go to, and they’re inundated.”
Juliet admits that the group is small and “there are 4,000 households just in Sefton" [one of Merseyside's metropolitan boroughs] who could use their help. People are going to fall through the net. In the end is this all going to get us anywhere? What’s going to happen? It could be violence.”
Mick, who has just made me another brew, chimes in: “There’ll be violence on the streets. It’s inevitable. Although I’ve been a union official in my past, nothing has garnered the fight in me like it’s been garnered now.” Juliet adds, “We’ll continue to work within the law and using our methods, but look at the numbers.” They have a point. The DHP budget is a fig leaf compared to the number of households falling into arrears.
Terraced housing in the area.
Evictions over the bedroom tax are already underway, at the moment with tenants who have existing arrears and were quickly pushed over the edge after April. When bailiffs visited one such address in Kirkby to remove possessions, a picket organised by the local anti-bedroom tax group turned them away, blocking the street with cars.
The tenant in question doesn’t exactly fit the government’s picture of a "scrounger", that mythical, couch-dwelling scourge of Britain's "hard-working families". Mick tells me how she won awards for her work as a carer in a home, both paid and in her own time, while fostering children. Five years ago she had a heart attack and had to give up work as she struggled with her health. She lives alone, having lost her husband to an industrial accident, but is supported by nearby family.
“They are giving a message to the community,” says Mick. “They told her daughter, ‘We’re prepared to do one of these a day.’ They’re boasting. A message is going out to the local area: We will counteract your organisation using the law and by bullying people. At the moment she’s got no chance of getting back into social housing again. She’s had that tenancy for 20 years. We’re not dealing with the same person we were dealing with six months ago. The consequences have totally changed the outlook of the family and community.”
If the cases coming through the surgery today are anything to go by, more evictions are on the way.
A Kirkby community protest against the bedroom tax. (Photo courtesy of Communities Against the Bedroom Tax)
Juliet has been involved in political struggles for decades. Her family moved out of their one-bedroom flat in London during her infancy to a new estate in Bury St Edmunds and she has lived the decline of the old council house ideal.
“Maggie was about property-owning democracy. My parents bought their council house. The garden was big enough to build two other houses on, which they did. They profiteered from that. All of those houses were lost to families of the future. The profits from those did not come back into councils.”
Joe adds that some people on the nearby Norris Green estate are abandoning their houses outright, and Housing Associations are already struggling to fill three- and four-bed properties. If left empty, they will eventually either be bought by private landlords or demolished. Everyone here sees the policy as a continuation of a long-term attack on social housing.
The Norris Green housing estate.
“I believe people have a right to social housing," Juliet told me. "It’s not heavily subsidised and it provides security for communities. It stops individualism and promotes a sense of collectivism.
“Militant council in the 1980s destroyed loads of terraced housing, which they said were slums, and built things with front and back gardens. That seemed like utopia, but that creates individualism – ‘Get off my fucking fence’ – it creates isolation.”
Mick reflects, “People have changed; they’ve become more ‘I’m alright, Jack.’ People are used to isolating themselves within their four walls, not active out on the street.”
Opinion polls have tracked a hardening attitude to the welfare state over the years, even in areas which are completely dependent on it to top up flatlining wages. Whether this is best ascribed to belligerent sections of the media, changing social conditions, or mismanagement of the system, the trend is real enough.
Merseyside has seen big housing movements in its time, from the Kirkby rent strike to Poll Tax non-payment, but this seems different. Perhaps we will see something like the August 2011 riots when the bailiffs come knocking for families. Some activists certainly seem to think so. A still bleaker prospect is that isolated tenants are pushed to the brink of suicide and nobody does anything. The least that can be said of Reclaim is that, for some, they are ensuring it doesn’t end that way.
Follow James on Twitter: @sudden_sloth
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