Belfast Telegraph

Tuesday 22 July 2014

Bedroom tax may be delayed to allow for house building

Nelson McCausland
Nelson McCausland

The Assembly is to be asked to delay the controversial bedroom tax in Northern Ireland for three years, the Belfast Telegraph can reveal.

Ulster Unionists intend to table an amendment to the welfare reform legislation and believe other parties will fall in behind the postponement.

The UUP says the time gap would allow the Executive to push ahead with building suitable new homes – and boost the ailing construction industry.

It comes after it emerged the under-occupancy scheme would see more than 32,000 tenants in Housing Executive and Housing Association properties – around half of all working-age tenants here – hit with a reduction of up to 25% from their weekly housing benefit if it is decided they have more bedrooms than they need.

Social Development Minister Nelson McCausland (below) has already admitted concerns over implementing the proposal – a key component of the massive welfare shake-up – because of insufficient housing stock.

Opting out of the national scheme – referred to as 'parity' within the UK – would cost the Stormont Executive an estimated £13m to £17m a year, which would have to come from elsewhere.

Michael Copeland, the Ulster Unionist Member of the Assembly's social development committee, said the scheme is "ludicrous" and "ill-thought-out" and could have a devastating impact here.

His party leader Mike Nesbitt added: "We are opposed to the under-occupancy; we do not have the housing stock to offer tenants the choice of moving rather than facing an arbitrary and unexpected charge, often late in the tenant's life. The only solution must be to hold off the full implementation of the charge until the housing stock offers that choice, and then start only with new tenants.

"It will cost a lot less than the estimated £17m a year DSD tell us, but then DSD told us the sky would fall in if the Assembly forced them to defer the legislation beyond March. Then towards the end of last month, DSD voluntarily deferred the Bill and the sky hasn't fallen in."

East Belfast MLA Mr Copeland said the amendment would mean the scheme being delayed for "at least" three years and "in the intervening period I would suggest that DSD could begin to rectify the problem by commencing the construction of additional two-bed units while all the time trying to relocate people voluntarily before the penalty comes into force".

The Executive is expected to discuss the issue next week ahead of the consideration stage of the legislation commencing in the Assembly on Tuesday, April 16.

Mr McCausland recently told the Assembly the present housing stock and the current population requiring social housing do not match up. "That is the result of decisions taken over a number of years, whereby houses, homes of the wrong size to match the need, were built," he said. "It would take quite a number of years... to ensure that we actually have the right provision."

Other parties are also expected to table amendments after Mr McCausland announced a three-week extension to his deadline.

Background

Minister Nelson McCausland has proclaimed his priority is to prevent the so-called bedroom tax sparking evictions in Northern Ireland with tenants then declared homeless. "Housing associations are working with Government, the Housing Executive and tenants to help minimise and mitigate the impact of the bedroom tax," the Social Development Minister said. "The associations are committed to doing all they can to avoid an increase in evictions as a result of the benefit changes, such as through debt and money advice programmes."

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