Comment: Affordable homes would cut benefits bill

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In his column here on Wednesday, Danny Alexander, Chief Secretary to the Treasury, sought to defend the government’s policy of cutting housing benefit for social tenants deemed to be underoccupying their homes, citing the need for the government to achieve parity between the private and social rented sectors.

But by imposing the so-called “bedroom tax”, the government is penalising some of society’s most vulnerable people for something they can do little to avoid, given the shortage of smaller properties.

Mr Alexander insists the bedroom tax will help house Scotland’s 60,000 overcrowded households by freeing up larger homes. It won’t do that. Perversely, it will force people into smaller, but much more expensive private rented sector accommodation instead – driving the benefits bill still higher.

The government’s data shows clearly that, over the past decade, the cost to the taxpayer of housing benefit for private sector tenancies increased by 153 per cent, compared with a 21 per cent increase for council and housing association tenancies. In 2011-12, 40 per cent of all housing benefit expenditure went to tenants of private landlords.

The most telling statistic of all is that housing benefit costs on average 70 per cent more per week for private sector rents than it does for council or housing association accommodation. So you have to wonder why a government determined to reduce the benefits bill is pursuing a policy which will drive people into the private sector.

A more constructive solution to overcrowded households would be to build the new affordable homes that our country needs so badly, meeting housing need, creating jobs, stimulating the economy and saving the public purse.

Mr Alexander claims UK government guarantees will be available to Scottish housing associations to help them build more homes more cheaply. But it will not become clear until the autumn how this money might be used in Scotland. The guarantee rules will also require grant funding to be available before it can be used. Current capital finance for housing in Scotland is allocated to other projects.

• Dr Mary Taylor is chief executive of the Scottish Federation of Housing Associations.