The bedroom tax and buggy bound babies. Why it is wrong for all of us

The case against the bedroom tax has been well laid out by many. It has also created a large amount of heat. As of this morning, if you Google ‘bedroom tax’ you get one hundred and twenty three million hits. The key reason it is an evil, pernicious policy is simple, and oft repeated. As for example, in today’s Independent. There are not enough smaller homes for people to move into. Therefore, what the bedroom tax is actually about is driving ‘undesirables’, the disabled, older women who have raised their families and have no obvious ‘economic’ role for society, those on welfare, etc. out of council housing completely, and into precarious private renting, hostels, and rough sleeping.  This is, of course, the primary reason to oppose the policy, and it has also been said many millions of times already. What I wanted to explore today are some of the other, deeper consequences.

  • In the UK we already live in the smallest homes in Europe
  • Small homes are unhealthy homes
  • Small homes are actively disabling
  • Small homes are bad for children
  • Attachment to place, and a place to call home, is a fundamental human need
  • Membership of a community is equally a fundamental human need.

The bedroom tax will make the UK a sicker, more disabled society. It will stunt children’s growth. It will reduce the life expectancy of the sick, the disabled and the elderly. It will tear away whole strata of community support. And ultimately, so poorly though out is it, it will profoundly damage capitalism itself, reducing the pool of drones available for mindless jobs.

 

UK homes are already tiny

The ‘bedroom tax’ policy would have us believe that there are people out there living in huge big houses, and much of this space is unneeded. However, they do this by counting number of bedrooms, not actual usable floor-space. And the thing is, one person occupying a small 2-bed council flat in the UK probably has less real space than someone in Denmark living in a one-bed apartment. UK homes are already the smallest in Europe, and getting smaller.  Further, the loss of size is, not surprisingly, not universally spread. Social housing and private rented accommodation, on average, is just over half the average size of ‘typical stock‘ with less than 50 square meters per flat regardless of the number of bedrooms. So those sitting in owner-occupied 3 bed houses judging another person for living in a three bed council flat are simply not comparing like with like in the first place.

Most council flats are already pokey little boxes

Small homes are very bad for our physical and mental health

The two sisters detailed in this story describe quite well the strain of living in cramped living quarters. Small houses and flats are correlated with poorer mental health. Lack of sunlight so common to tiny one and two bedroom flats, combined with the innate stress of tiny living quarters can tip many people over the edge into a clinical depression they would not have suffered from otherwise.

Poor quality housing equally leads to poorer physical health outcomes. It’s been known for centuries that overcrowding leads to spread of infectious diseases. Globally, the World Health Organisation tell us that “Bad housing and poor environmental conditions have the greatest impact on acute respiratory infections and diarrhoeal diseases. And children are worst affected – accounting for as much as two-thirds of all preventable ill-health due to environmental conditions“. The same is just as true on a local level. It is also specifically linked to the new western world issue of the re-emergence of TB, with new, anti-biotic resistant strains. Shove families out of three bed houses into smaller, two bed flats, and you are greatly increasing the incidence of communicable diseases as they will spread much more rapidly between those that share bedrooms than those that don’t.

In short, the smaller the home you live in, the greater your statistical chances of getting sick.

 

Impairments don’t disable people nearly as much as poor quality homes disable people

Disability is, in part, an interaction between a person and their environment. We can’t – and maybe shouldn’t, change the person, but we can change the environment. Research that was being conducted at the time of the launch of DLA (now under attack) found that, while as a very rough average it could be said that a disabled person needed up to 70% more income to have the identical standard of living as a non-disabled person, this figure varied wildly, and the biggest single variable was not the severity of the impairment, but the quality of the immediate environment, specifically the home.(1) As an example, say a person looses the ability to get in and out of a bath by themselves. If they live in a home with a walk-in shower, it’s not a big issue. If they live in a house with only an old bath tub, they need a carer to come and help them, at incredible cost, while being actively disabled by what would otherwise be possibly quite a mild impairment.

The fact is, disability creates a need for space, and for adaptions to the home. The UK housing policy used to acknowledge this, and has subsequently and silently ceased to do so. Which meant that, when the bedroom tax hit over sixty percent of families affected have a disabled member, and one out of every four disabled people in the country are being affected. Most of these people are being driven out of adapted homes where they can manage their impairments, into non-adapted homes where they will become far sicker, and more disabled. This is not a neutral tax. This is part of the greater war being waged by the ConDems against the disabled.

The results of the Bedroom Tax will therefore be a dramatic  increase in the level of disability experienced.

Buggy bound babies and the consequences for childhood

Several years ago, I ran a Family Center in a large, highly disadvantaged area comprised of miles of high rise council flats and not much else. Among myself and the other professionals who worked in this area, a term came into common usage. One which, interestingly enough, I have found no evidence of being used beyond that specific area although I still personally believe it is a much wider problem. We talked about ‘Buggy Bound Baby Syndrome’. ‘Buggy Bound Babies’ was the short hand we used to describe a recurrent, almost universal problem that we met. It described children who, despite loving and caring parenting by their caregivers, and an absence of any medical ‘anomaly’, consistently failed to thrive, or meet any of their developmental milestones within anything close to the normal range. ‘Buggy Bound Baby Syndrome’ could be seen to affect almost every single child under 3 in some of the more dilapidated and deprived of the tower blocks.’Buggy Bound Baby Syndrome’, in the minds of myself and the other ‘do-gooders’ working in the area, also had a simple and clear explanation. These were babies who spent their nights in their cots, and their days in there buggies. They didn’t learn to roll over at the ‘right’ age, or crawl at the ‘right’ age, or walk at the ‘right’ age. Because they couldn’t! because insufficient floor space existed in their tiny pokey flats, so they were never put down to play on the floor. While less dramatic, these ‘buggy bound babies’ often showed a slowed development in speech and social skills, which is not surprising – if you hold back a child’s development in one area it will have knock on effects, and slow their development in other areas.

Buggy bound babies grow into sofa bound children. Children who do poorly at school because our education system, unlike most European countries, relies heavily on the concept of ‘homework’, and many children in the UK today grow up in homes so tiny that a small little study desk is impossible, never mind a big dinning-room table where they could sit and do homework properly with siblings and some parental supervision. A major part of our services used to be the provision of ‘homework clubs’ where the children could come, because it was that, or sit cross-legged on a bed in an utterly unsuitable environment with distractions at every turn.

From the time of Piaget, experts in child development have always stressed that children need space to play, both indoors and probably more importantly, outdoors. Furthermore, children need time and space away from adult supervision, to play freely and explore, or vitally important aspects of independence and personality formation can not take place. In a nice ‘middle class’ home the kids can go and lay out their toy cars in the bedroom while Mum and/or Dad do something else, elsewhere in the house.  The kids are ‘just playing’ – they are also learning about social skills, problem solving, physical skills, the list of what they are really doing is actually endless, and all of that is stolen from couch bound children who then do not get the same range of physical, psychological, social and moral development.

How will these children grow up to be happy healthy functional adults, with a positive space in society? More likely they will end up caught up in a cycle of diagnosis and pathologising. But we  call it ADHD today, and drug it away with ritalin, because the poor kids have not had opportunity’s to learn self regulation or so many other skills We don’t remedy that, we drug it away.

When will this be addressed? When capitalism runs out of worker-drones? Or will we just find more and more drugs to stupefy the unhappy with? Surely in the long run, it would be not only kinder and more helpful, but indeed more cost effective to accept that families require space.

A home is the place that we are from, the place that we return to, our refuge from the world

A home is far more than bricks and mortar. A home is a deep and innate psychological need. I know. I have had 27 addresses in my 40 years of life, and felt that need grow and grow. A home is a place where the marks still show on the side of the wardrobe door of the children’s heights at different ages, marked in pencil for each birthday. A home is a place where the hydrangea bush at the end of the garden marks the burial site of Rover, the beloved family dog who gave 17 years of loyalty and love. A home is a place you can plant a few daffodils, and paint the walls. It sounds such a small thing, to plant a few daffodils, but to the many women I worked with in that old, disadvantaged housing estate it was not. The area was being ‘regenerated’. The old tower blocks knocked down, and smaller (much much smaller) little maisonettes built in their place, as if this would solve the mammoth structural disadvantage faced by that community. The regeneration was supposed to be a ‘good’ thing, but caused some deep psychological issues for those experiencing it. In the young mothers group that I ran, I found that every woman had been homeless with her baby prior to an allocation of housing, and the uncertainly of knowing that she would have to move, but not know when, or how, or to where, re-opened many half healed wounds, and was actually quite a devastating psychological insult to these brave and wonderful women who had known far more than their share of suffering already. In the midst of huge problems, feeding their families and keeping body a soul together, this complaint, ‘I can’t even plant a few daffodils’ came up over and over again. We all need a home, a place to go out into the world from, a place to plant a few daffodils. The fact that this aspect, this psychological importance of The Home is so under discussed is tragic, and demonstrates how even we, on the left,  have got suckered so deeply into arguments of austerity – we could just imagine the response f the Daily Mail readers, so we don’t even say it. But it needs to be said – it is anti woman and anti family in particular not to say it. We have seen that, after the 60% of disabled people, those most affected have been women. Women such as Stephanie Bottrill and  Irene Lockett who raised a family in a family home. With the children gone, are now told to get out too, for as a society we value only those things that have economic worth, and value not at all those things with psychological worth, such as love, and compassion, and memories, and the ethereal qualities of home. The psychological impacts of this, as we can see, are devastating.

 

Personally, I live in a nice little 2 bed bungalow that I rent with my nice little academic salary and am not impacted by the bedroom tax. But as a disabled person, I must oppose it for being first and foremost an assault on the rights of disabled people. As a feminist, a woman and a mother, I must oppose it for being profoundly anti-family. As a lesbian I must oppose it for the same reasons. For how any anyone with any kind of non-conventional family have their right to family life respected, if even those with ‘conventional’ families are being trodden on?  As a human being, I must oppose the bedroom tax. And I must oppose it, for it is clear to see, if we allow society to be that damaged. we will ALL suffer in the end.

 

What we need instead is a massive building programme. We need homes. People need places to live. And there are just not enough. We need decent sized and decent quality life-time homes which will allow for families to form, and grow, and shrink, and grow in that age old pattern that families do. And if we did that, you know what? The investment would go a lot way to speeding up the economy again and help bring the recession to an end. Just ask Keynes, or Beverage, or any of the architects of the post-war welfare state.

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2 Responses to The bedroom tax and buggy bound babies. Why it is wrong for all of us

  1. sue says:

    Thank you for this. I have been part of the campaign (through Spartacus) to get the JR up and running but I am also a fifty one year old woman with chronic ill heath affected by the bedroom tax. I was also once a teacher and academic but as a widow with young children I never had the chance to fly. I am devastated by the JR, especially after having put so much effort into lobbying MPs, writing articles, keeping the media informed. I can only hope the Appeal is successful or that enough political pressure comes to bear to at least alter the policy to include wider exemptions. Total repeal is, however, the real goal.

    There are so many layers to this policy and one that has been repeatedly ignored is the percentage that is deducted and what that translates to in real terms. Benefit levels are the same no matter where you live; JSA is still £71 in Glasgow or Glossop, but the 25% off HB can be £20 or, as in my case, £34 per week. How can this be right? How can a policy that produces such a wide variation be fair? Over 350,000 tenants are paying between £20 and £40 per week bedroom tax, giving the lie to the £14 ‘average’ which actually constitutes fewer than half the affected households.

    Furthermore, the 25% may be a quarter of the HB but it can also translate into over a third off the tenant’s other subsistence benefits. I know of several tenants who are paying £25 per week from basic JSA, taking them well below the official poverty line. These are issues I have yet to see properly examined in the media: the bedroom tax really has nothing to do with housing and all to do with money. The sooner we start realising that it is an attack on everyone’s basic right to a minimum level of economic protection in time of need the sooner we may see an end to it.

    • I hadn’t thought about the fact that different people in different parts of the country would pay different amounts, but as you so rightly point out, of course they would, as it is a proportion of rent, not income.
      All our hopes now have to be on the appeal.

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