Murdo Ritchie places the so-called ‘Bedroom Tax’ into the wider economic and political context of housing provision today.

Inside a Glasgow single end
Inside a Glasgow single end

When debating supporters of capitalism and capitalist markets I am told about the system’s greater efficiency in the use of natural resources. At this point, I ask my opponent if they have an indoor toilet. They smile at the bizarreness of the question. The answer is always yes. I then ask the obvious question, “Why are you not sitting on it?” Usually they consider me flippant or simply scoring a trivial debating point. But I always add that for decades houses in Scotland were built on the efficient use of natural resources with many houses sharing one toilet usually on the tenement landing. Economic efficiency was socially disgusting.

The single end was term for a one-room house that has largely ceased to exist. It is no longer as common as it once was. As a term, it described more than a kind of accommodation. It was a highly descriptive term of housing despair. The so-called bedroom tax is enthusiastically bringing its return. Some 94,000 Scots will overnight be plunged into rent arrears and forced to move. The single end is a sentence of punishment.

The creation of stigma and the mobilisation of prejudice is applied to tenants at the end of the age spectrum, but below those of pension age. From April 2013, working age tenants will not receive their full rent obligation if they have one or more rooms too many in the government’s opinion. Even if the room has a purpose in a family’s or person’s life, this is to be called under-occupancy. This means that the shortfall must be made up from the primary benefits allocated for food, heating or other essential costs.


It will affect people whose children have moved on, forcing them to move to possibly unfamiliar locations. This will not only affect single people or couples, but will affect a couple with one child whose other child no longer lives in a separate bedroom. Settled households are to be uprooted and economically forced to move on.

According to the Daily Mail, “700,000 housing claimants have a spare room subsidised by the state.”[1]Almost 700,000 housing claimants have spare room subsidised by state
A further “150,000 have two or more spare rooms.” It claims this affects a third of social housing tenants. Apparently, this is “far bigger than most working families could afford.” Conveniently ignoring the fact that the fastest growing group of housing benefit claimants is in employment.

As well as all the available evidence, resentment is actively encouraged.

First, it ignores the DWP’s own research that shows “[m]ost families on HB are not in better accommodation than they could access if they were not working, and there are not strong incentives for working families to claim Housing Benefit.”[2]Out-of-work families claiming Housing Benefit cannot afford better homes than low-income working families Secondly, recent statistics from the English Housing Survey show that, “[m]ost people in all types of tenure live in properties that are either at standard or just one bedroom above.”[3]Social housing and under-occupation: the wrong priorities However, the highest rate of under-occupancy is to be found in the owner-occupied sector; in absolute terms “they account for 88% of under-occupied homes.”

“It’s not fair or affordable for people to live in homes that are too large for their needs…,” According to Lord Freud.[4]Daily Mail op cit.. However, when questioned about how many homes he owns or how many rooms he under-occupies, he is too arrogant to respond to the same question that millions each year are compelled to answer or lose their right to life support from the benefits system.

A frequent reference is made to the five million on housing waiting lists. This comparison is made solely to stoke up resentments, unless the government is suggesting that some form of voluntary or compulsory billeting of homeless people be introduced. The government claims that its objective is so-called “downsizing”. This assumes that the space people have in their homes is in excess of their needs. This is a questionable assumption. Furthermore, it dramatically ignores the fact that in many parts of Scotland, Northern England and Wales much social housing stock lies empty. The greatest shortages are in the areas of near permanent full employment where the public housing stock has been most depleted. In many areas, many people who would comprise the flexible labour market, with only periodic temporary employment, have the consolation that they can at least become custodians of good quality housing stock that otherwise would remain empty.


The creation of barrack rooms already exists for many who are in work and have bought their own homes. So-called “downsizing” applies to more than tenants looking for smaller properties. Britain now builds the smallest houses in Europe according to the Commission for Architecture in the Built Environment.[5]Cited in Room to swing a cat? Hardly Since the eighties, building standards have continuously been eroded and are further disappearing. Now there is no minimum size required for any room.

Anecdotal reports have increased of people feeling claustrophobic in newly built houses, or unable to fit essential items like a sofa into living room or waste bins into kitchens. At an average of 15.8 square metres for the average new build room in the UK compares unfavourably with 26.9 square metres in France and comes nowhere near half the size of rooms in Australia or the USA.

Roger Graef explains, “Our research at the Future Homes Commission, published today, shows the reasons why loud and clear. Not enough space in the rooms. Not enough storage. Not enough natural light. And not enough flexible spaces for communal and private living or changes in the household over time. In other words, they don’t think new homes are built for the needs of modern families in the ways that Victorian and Edwardian houses were.”[6]The British don’t want to live in new-build homes. No wonder He could also have added the many council homes built immediately before and after the war.

Older public sector stock is often more spacious and more sought after. That’s why so much of it was sold. This comparison annoys those who want others to live in barrack rooms instead of houses. Instead of seeing tenants who live in older stock as custodians, the already dangerous risk of leaving good properties empty becomes greater. And, of course, this leads to the further demolition of good quality housing stock.

According to Coalition former Housing Minister Grant Schapps, announcing further erosions, “House builders are the experts at building homes, so I’m inviting them to be in charge of developing a new framework for building standards.”[7] Again, anecdotally, though I’m sure a Freedom of Information request to local authorities would confirm it; many houses have become so small that builders are regularly adding a new house or houses to rows or blocks without obtaining permission. They have become so arrogant they know they will not be opposed by any local authority desperate for new housing.

The creation of housing as barracks extends well into the owner-occupied as well as the rented sector. The Royal Institute of British Architect’s President, Ruth Reed has said, “UK house builders have delivered the smallest houses in Europe, and have built homes which have been consistently judged to be of poor quality by the government’s own design watchdog. The government should be putting the interests of communities first.”[8]Cited in comments ibid.

The fundamental cell of capitalist production is the commodity, which exists through the tension between its use-value and its exchange-value. Constantly rising house prices have changed a house from somewhere to live, its use-value, to an asset to be bought and sold, its exchange-value. Houses are being built not to be lived in, but solely to be sold. They are like share certificates. This is driving down their quality. These freely made consumer choices have an impact outside the owner-occupied market. It was no accident that housing quality improved when it was increasingly distanced from the capitalist market.

Economic pressures have to be resisted. It is simply not true to claim they have to be accommodated at all times. The alternative to a shared toilet on the tenement landing was not the indoor toilet. If economic pressures had been followed it would have been one pay toilet in the street. It requires political will to challenge the powerful economic interests; a feature that is lacking in most mainstream politicians. Political priorities prioritizing the needs of householders need to be at the centre of our thinking, and not only those of house-builders.