Northern Ireland is about to experience many of the austerity policies that have been rolled out in England, including the Bedroom Tax. Although this had been implemented in 2017, a ‘mitigation package’ ensured households were protected from it until 2020. With that deadline now nearing, and with no government in place, the policy is set to have many negative consequences on one of the most deprived UK regions, writes Kelly Bogue.
As the British political establishment grapple with the continuing saga of Brexit, across the Irish Sea commentators have issued stark warnings about the welfare reform ‘cliff edge’ facing Northern Ireland in March 2020. A coalition of over 70 local organisations warn that if residents are not protected from these reforms, then increased poverty, foodbank use, rent arrears and evictions will ensue. Their concerns should be heard and taken seriously. One only need look to the British mainland, where people have felt the full impacts of austerity policies since 2013. The case of welfare reform in Northern Ireland, and the fears over implementing them in full, however, miss one crucial element: the divisive nature of these policies.
Without the renewal of the mitigations package that was put into place in 2015 under the ‘Fresh Start’ Agreement, previously mitigated welfare reform, and policies such as the ‘Bedroom Tax’, will be fully implemented. Or to put it another way, people who rely on the support of the social security system will be made poorer, and will experience the grossly damaging effects of housing insecurity. Failure to renew mitigations will create the potential for increased anger and heightened tensions around housing which could result in a political backlash.
Take for example the ‘Removal of the Spare Room Subsidy’, otherwise known as the ‘Bedroom Tax’. A policy that results in a reduction in Housing Benefit support for those with spare bedroom(s) and deemed to be under-occupying their homes. This policy has been in place in England and Wales since 2013 and has led to adverse impacts on tenants’ housing stability and on the health and wellbeing of those affected. Hardly surprising, given that it was a policy that disproportionately impacted upon those experiencing sickness or disability. If this policy is introduced in Northern Ireland, an estimated 34,000 social housing tenants will see a reduction in their income as they will have to make-up the shortfall in rent. Alternatively, these tenants can ‘choose’ to downsize, a situation that may prove difficult given the long waiting lists and the inadequate supply of social housing.
When the policy was implemented in England and Wales, the UK government were well aware that in many parts of the country, there was a lack of smaller homes for tenants to downsize to. This is a situation that is replicated in Northern Ireland, but one that will be made harder if tenants want to remain within their immediate community. This is a central point, and why the Bedroom Tax is such a damaging policy – those who reside in social housing have greater longevity of residence in comparison to those living in the private rented sector. Many tenants affected by the policy in England were rooted in place, and had established friendship and kin networks which were disrupted by the policy.
The consequence of this uncertainty, and the pressure to top up rent payments from finite finances, my research has shown, led to greater tension around housing as many of those impacted felt forced and bullied out of their homes. This led to anger directed at politicians, and the increased ‘othering’ of new communities with whom residents now felt they were competing with for housing. Looked at in the context of Northern Ireland, where ethno-religious residential segregation and a substantial waiting list for social housing still remains. One wonders how the implementation of the Bedroom Tax and other welfare reform policies will play out.
History shows that housing is an incendiary issue. Along with economic hardship and religious discrimination, housing grievances played a major part in kicking off Northern Ireland’s civil rights movement in the late 1960s. And, despite two decades of relative peace, housing remains a source of conflict within the province as a strong sense of territorial belonging within Republican/Nationalist and Loyalist/Unionist communities prevails; racist and sectarian housing intimidation also presents challenges. What, then, should we expect to see if mitigations against this damaging policy are not renewed in 2020, particularly when many feel migration into the province has placed greater pressure on housing resources.
The most insidious aspect of the Bedroom Tax is the way in which it results in prolonged housing insecurity, as those affected try and remain within homes they have lived in for decades. While its divisive nature presents itself around the perceived competition over housing, the lack of available smaller properties constrains the ability of tenants to downsize. And tenants are faced with this reality when they are forced back onto social housing waiting lists. Housing is an emotive issue and this results in anger, creating new grievances and re-igniting old ones, grievances which, some suggest, played a part in the vote to leave the European Union in 2016.
The Brexit vote was, in part, a symptom of austerity policies, policies which are still being rolled out. To inflict those same policies on communities in Northern Ireland, many of whom failed to benefit from the so-called ‘peace dividend’, should be a cause of deep concern. Stormont must return to governance in order to pass the necessary legislation. Otherwise, the resulting animosity and anger that will be discernible if the mitigations are not renewed may well be laid at the door of Brexit, absolving, again, those inflicting systemic welfare state change on some of the UK’s most vulnerable people.
Kelly Bogue is Research Fellow at the Centre for Trust, Peace and Social Relations, Coventry University.
All articles posted on this blog give the views of the author(s), and not the position of LSE British Politics and Policy, nor of the London School of Economics and Political Science. Featured image credit: Pixabay (Public Domain).